Staff Only sign at a restaurant
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

D.C. will end indoor dining on Wednesday, Dec. 23 at 10 p.m., two sources with knowledge of the situation tell City Paper. The move comes as COVID-19 cases continue to trend in the wrong direction in the region. The city hopes to resume indoor dining in a limited capacity at some point in January, according to the sources.

(Following the publication of this story, Mayor Muriel Bowser issued an order that confirmed the start date and time of the indoor dining ban. She added that the ban expires on January 15.)

Bowser ordered restaurants to reduce their indoor seating capacity from 50 to 25 percent on Dec. 14. She also ended on-premise alcohol sales after 10 p.m. earlier this month. The administration must have concluded that these measures don’t go far enough to stop transmission of the virus. Montgomery County, Maryland, D.C.’s neighbor to the north, banned indoor dining earlier this week.

This month, the Centers for Disease Control issued its strongest guidance to date related to indoor dining. “Indoor venues, where distancing is not maintained and consistent use of face masks is not possible (e.g., restaurant dining), have been identified as particularly high-risk scenarios,” the CDC shared.

A handful of restaurants have already reverted back to takeout-only operations of their own volition, citing concerns of staff safety and spiking cases. Others, including La Jambe, The Passenger, Boundary Stone, DC9, Electric Cool-Aid, Last Call, and Left Door recently opted to “hibernate,” meaning they’ll close until winter is over.

But for the restaurants whose cuisines don’t translate well to takeout and who were hoping for a boost in sales around the holidays, this news is undoubtedly a dagger. D.C. just had its first winter storm, making outdoor dining less desirable.

“From a public health perspective, it is absolutely the right decision,” says Grand Duchess bar manager Sam Ward. “For keeping people alive, it’s the right decision. But it’s unconscionable that it could happen without additional support from the city. It’s hard not to feel forsaken to a degree.” 

The city recently opened applications for its Bridge Fund that will allocate $35 million to the restaurant industry. Congress, on the other hand, hasn’t passed aid specifically targeting the hospitality industry despite mounting pressure. “The federal response has been abhorrent and infuriating,” Ward says. “But there’s nothing we D.C. voters can do about that.”

Ward says revenue is down about 75 percent at the Adams Morgan bar. Business will now be limited to a handful of outdoor tables. “I wish we could be closed,” Ward says. “I really do.” He says he’ll be OK if Grand Duchess decides to “hibernate,” but he can’t say the same for others. “The challenge is there are so many disparate experiences in the hospitality industry. I’ll collect unemployment or work for DoorDash to keep myself active, but it’s not the same as somebody who is supporting three kids.”

“I’m all for protecting myself and the residents of my city,” adds Eugene Barnett, a bartender at Solly’s. “I’m not mad about having to close if we have to close, I’m mad that my livelihood is being sacrificed without any type of compensation. It sucks that the city is leaving us out to dry with no financial help. The job market is like the lottery right now, chances are slim finding new employment and the unemployment system in D.C. is absolutely horrible.”

Baan Siam co-owner Tom Healy agrees pausing indoor dining is the right move, albeit a painful one. And he has some harsh words for the public at large. “It is a tragedy that this is probably the right call,” he says. “Restaurants desperately need support, but we also needed people to act responsibly. We aren’t just getting shut down by the government, we are getting shut down by people who have refused to act in their own, and their neighbors, best interest. This virus is transmitted as much by selfishness and stupidity as it is by droplets. No restaurant wants to close inside dining, but it’s the price we are now paying for the choices other people make. When restaurants fail because of this, it will be the fault of two groups—the people who willfully thought this virus wouldn’t affect them, and governments that could have supported us but didn’t.”

Some question the timing of the move and wish they had more time to pivot back to takeout and delivery. “What is stunning to me is the delay in announcing this,” says Dirty Goose co-owner Justin Parker. “Now, right before the two-week holiday stretch a lot of spots that don’t currently have delivery must quickly pivot and try to sign up to survive. With the 32-degree rule and this regulation, if you don’t have private outdoor seating, you essentially are closed on cold days. There will be a lot of establishments trying to set up delivery during a time where many of those companies will have light staff due to the holidays.”

“It is so infuriating that we are learning of it, from someone other than the mayor,” says Cafe Berlin co-owner Clytie Roberts-Glage. “Many restaurants have already purchased food and beverages for their dine-in reservations. The last-minute discussion is going to cause further financial hardships on independent owners, operators, and most importantly staff. While it is better than receiving notification next week, we still have scramble to make adjustments. It is absolutely disheartening.”

Some restaurants groups across the country have adopted a legal strategy to try and compel governments to reverse their indoor dining restrictions, including nearby Anne Arundel County in Maryland. Washington Business Journal reports that “a prohibition on indoor restaurant dining that was slated to start at 5 p.m. Wednesday has been put on hold by a local judge.”

This story has been updated with reaction from restaurant owners and workers.