Law enforcement officer behind a security fence
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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D.C. restaurants will have to wait an extra week before they can reopen their dining rooms at 25 percent capacity. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced late tonight that she is extending the indoor dining ban originally set to expire on Jan. 15 to Jan. 22 at 5 a.m. The time frame now more closely aligns with the public safety related state of emergency the city declared on Jan. 6 that lasts through 3 p.m. on Jan. 21.

The ban, initially described as a “holiday pause,” was put in place on Christmas Eve to control the spread of COVID-19 during a particularly perilous time period when Washingtonians were expected to travel to see relatives or mingle with people outside of their households despite repeated pleas from public health officials to limit activity.

A coronavirus spike did materialize over the past two weeks, but Bowser didn’t point to the virus when she said she was considering extending the indoor dining ban at a press conference earlier on Monday. Her decision, she said, is tied to public safety concerns leading up to and during the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20. Violence and insurrection carried out by white supremacists and hate groups claimed several lives on Jan. 6 and there are credible enough future threats that the National Guard is expected to send as many as 15,000 troops to D.C.

In the end, tonight’s mayoral order cites both the public health emergency and the public safety emergency as reasons for the extension. “We have hit a new record in the District, with transmission at 41.22 new cases per 100,000 persons,” it reads. “Total infections in the District have risen to 31,993, and tragically 821 District residents have lost their lives due to COVID-19.”

Presidential inaugurations are typically huge money makers for D.C.-area restaurants because of the influx of people who flock to the region and the potential for private event bookings. But the combined threats of a global pandemic and domestic terrorism have made any desperately needed boost in revenue practically impossible.

Even takeout and delivery sales could be slashed over the next two weeks due to street closures and increased security measures that could prevent diners and delivery drivers from picking up food. Third-party delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats could take their drivers offline. That’s why the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington pushed back its biannual Restaurant Week that was set to run from Jan. 18-31. It will now be from Jan. 25 through Feb. 7.

RAMW CEO Kathy Hollinger says unlike summer Restaurant Week, which highlighted outdoor dining opportunities, winter Restaurant Week is more about “meeting diners where they are with a bigger focus on takeout and delivery.” She cited inauguration-related street closures and potential curfews as reasons for delaying the promotion designed to put money in restaurants pockets during the slowest months of the year.

Hollinger says she has received some inquiries from local restaurant owners to explore suing the city into revoking its indoor dining ban, much like several counties in Maryland attempted. (It only worked in Anne Arundel County.) The Maryland Restaurant Association tried to argue in its Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore City lawsuits that there is no evidence linking the spread of COVID-19 to restaurants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its strongest guidance to date related to indoor dining at the end of 2020: “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.”

With the extension of the indoor dining ban in D.C. now about public safety and the inauguration in addition to COVID-19, it’s a tougher case to argue, according to Hollinger. “If this is tied to a state of emergency versus an increase in COVID cases, I would think that argument is more complex. We definitely have restaurants that need their indoor dining, even at 25 percent capacity. What we’ve been communicating is that we are going to keep monitoring and listening.”

D.C. restaurant and bar owners are frustrated and remain worried about the viability of their businesses 10 months into the pandemic. Employees are concerned about losing even more income. Neither group, of course, knows what intelligence the city is currently receiving about the severity and extent of the domestic terrorism threats to the District and its residents.

“We care greatly about the safety of both our customers and our staff,” says Across The Pond co-owner Michael Waters. “So if the COVID data supports extending the indoor dining ban, I think most D.C. restaurants would support it. But in regards to the inauguration, I’d like to think that the D.C. police department and federal authorities will be well-equipped and prepared to keep the public safe without locking down an entire city.”

The Dupont Circle pub has been open on weekends for takeout and outdoor dining when weather has permitted since the indoor dining ban took effect after service on Dec. 23. The extension, Waters, says caught him off guard. Surviving each day is now “a monumental ask.”

He’s frustrated there isn’t more regional coordination. “The hardest thing is the inconsistency of policies within the District, Maryland, and Virginia,” Waters continues. “Restaurants just 10 minutes away, in Arlington, are able to welcome patrons with open arms. That’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Northern Virginia is the outlier in the region. Restaurants in Arlington and Alexandria don’t even have a capacity limit on indoor seating, though parties must be seated at least six feet apart. While some diners from D.C. and Maryland are heading to the Commonwealth to dine inside, a mad dash hasn’t materialized.

“I’m disappointed that it has been further extended,” echoes restaurateur Ashok Bajaj. He owns several restaurants downtown, including Modena, Bombay Club, and Rasika. “Our industry and staff are already suffering from last week’s events and closures. This further compounds the suffering.”

Nick Hodgson, a bartender in Georgetown, wonders if the expanded restrictions could be more localized. “If you’re going to try to impose some kind of lockdown or extend anything, do it close to where the damage is being done,” he says. Business has been so slow since temperatures dropped that Hodgson has been trying to apply for unemployment benefits again. He says the process has only become more complicated. “Even though what happened at the Capitol was appalling, it wasn’t every nook and cranny of D.C.”

Another D.C. restaurateur, who asked to remain anonymous, would prefer more of a wait-and-see approach. With the city being in state of emergency, he says Bowser can easily put a curfew in place or pause on-site dining for a night or two instead of implementing a blanket policy for 10 additional days. “The city is large, and there are many neighborhoods that are not directly affected by what is going on downtown.”