Stack of face masks
Credit: Laura Hayes

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

Mayor Muriel Bowser announced another indoor mask mandate on the afternoon of July 29. Within the next two hours, 16 tables of diners cancelled their reservations at Baan Siam for the upcoming weekend. The larger the party, according to managing partner Tom Healy, the more likely patrons nixed their plans.

“On a normal Friday or Saturday night, we have about 20 cancellations, which amounts to about 50 people,” he says. “After the announcement, we had the same number of cancellations, but it equaled 110 people.” The check average at the Mount Vernon Triangle Thai restaurant is $38 per person. “That’s $4,000 we lost in one day,” Healy says. He isn’t including large bookings in that count because they’re treated separately in their system. In addition to those 16 tables, Baan Siam lost parties of 20, 15, and nine after the mask mandate was announced. 

The mandate took effect on Saturday, July 31. Sunday was the slowest Baan Siam has been in six months, despite the pleasant weather. “It wasn’t just us,” he says. “I walked the block in the neighborhood and everyone was dead. With it that beautiful, the patio should have been hopping. Nobody had business.” 

Healy couldn’t ask every group why they decided not to dine at Baan Siam because most patrons cancelled via reservations apps. Some he spoke with said there was a death in the family or apologized because they “couldn’t get the whole group together.” No one explicitly mentioned the mask mandate, but Healy and other restaurant owners and managers who rode waves of cancellations over the past few days believe there’s a correlation. 

Diners may not be rebuking the fact that they have to wear a mask when they’re not actively eating and drinking. The District has performed well when it comes to compliance compared to other jurisdictions. Washingtonians might instead be afraid of what the mask mandate represents—that indoor settings remain riskier than outdoor ones as COVID-19 cases climb because of the highly contagious delta variant. 

Florida just recorded its highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a single day—21,683—since the pandemic began. People from all over the country visit D.C., especially during tourist season. COVID-19 numbers are rising here too. The District reported 312 new recorded cases over the past three days, with no new recorded deaths. 

Vaccines reduce the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, making them a critical shield. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 54.9 percent of the D.C. population is fully vaccinated. Only a tiny percentage of cases recorded since January have been what are known as “breakthrough cases,” meaning they occurred in fully vaccinated individuals. According to city data from July, 200 people who had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 contracted the virus, representing less than 1 percent of the fully vaccinated population of Washingtonians.

The city is hoping the indoor mask mandate acts as a literal extra layer of protection against the virus. Bowser said during the indoor mask mandate announcement that she wants to “get ahead of it and nip it in the bud” and that “we know that masks can be very effective in doing that.” D.C. isn’t alone. California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, and Washington state have indoor mask mandates in place. The CDC recommends that those in counties with “substantial” or “high” levels of coronavirus transmission wear masks inside. 

Restaurants, meanwhile, hope they can deal with another setback while also doing their part to keep staff and customers safe. Some instituted policies requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result for entry this past week. Baan Siam hasn’t gone that route despite the high stakes. “Just remember we’re all still living on the edge,” Healy says. “I hope and pray everyone does what they need to do because if not, I fear we’ll have to go back to social distancing, which will be a total killer for restaurants.” 

 Tiki TNT owner Todd Thrasher agrees. “Capacity limits would freak me out,” he says. “Capacity limits or shutting down indoor dining going into the fall, that would kind of suck. I think everyone is going to mask up and get through it.” Nonetheless, his towering temple to rum at The Wharf also experienced cancellations soon after the mask mandate was announced. Four or five parties abandoned their plans for future dates on Thursday. One was a group of 25 people scheduled to visit on Sunday. Thrasher was expecting it. “If you didn’t know it was coming, you weren’t watching the news.” 

They still have plenty of parties that haven’t cancelled, but Thrasher has noticed some changes in behavior since Thursday. “No one wants to stand and hang out around the bar,” he says. “People are no longer two- or three-deep at the bar.” Healy’s seen people reverting back to old ways too. “We’re seeing a dramatic uptick in people wanting to sit by themselves or sit away from everyone else while inside the restaurant or on the patio.” 

“More people are concerned,” says the owner of Ala in Dupont Circle, who asked not to be named. “They were thinking that the pandemic is gone, but after the announcement they think it still exists.” His Middle Eastern restaurant saw a few cancellations, but worse yet was the drop in people making new reservations. They typically host 200 diners on Fridays. Only 50 came this past Friday.

Meanwhile, within 24 hours of the mask mandate announcement, RARE Steakhouse & Tavern general manager Martin Knanik and assistant general manager Eduardo Carrasco caught wind of 10 cancellations for future events and more than 20 postponements. Three were especially consequential: a reception planned for this Thursday, a large group happy hour for the beginning of September, and a holiday party that was tethered to a conference. “A couple specifically said ‘Since you don’t have outdoor space, we cannot use the space due to the new mask mandate,’” Knanik says.

Even the small cancellations are felt acutely because upscale downtown restaurants have largely been without their dependable lobbyist and lawyer clientele who entertain clients over meals. These would-be big spenders are still working remotely and the delta variant isn’t helping. “The challenge is with the mayor’s ad hoc order being put out on the fly, people got scared,” Knanik says.

According to RARE assistant general manager Eduardo Carrasco, the timing couldn’t be worse. “Now that we finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel it’s very frustrating because we’ve been working so hard,” he says. “Requests for proposals tripled and now people are scaling back. We put all these hours and effort to make it work and hire more people and now we’re going backwards.” 

Knanik thinks it would help if D.C., Maryland, and Virginia acted in concert. Maryland does not have an indoor mask mandate and Virginia has only strongly recommended wearing masks indoors. “We should follow strict rules to get rid of COVID and we should attack it together,” he says. Carrasco adds, “We have colleagues in Tysons [Corner] seeing an increase in bookings. That means business is going over the bridge, which impacts our employees.” 

Employees, managers, and owners are all experiencing fatigue, according to DC Restaurant Group partner Eric Heidenberger. His businesses include The Madhatter, 801 Restaurant & Bar, Shaw’s Tavern, Prost DC, and Northside Tavern. “We thought we did everything over the last year and a half to get to May and June,” he says. The past couple of months felt like sweet relief. “But delta is delta.”  

He would have liked more notice before the mask mandate took effect. “Operators were left scrambling again, having conversations with staff about operations and how to enforce it,” he says. Throughout the pandemic, restaurant workers have been thrust into enforcement roles opening them up to abuse from unruly patrons. Fear stemming from these incidents is contributing to the local and national staffing crisis

This time around is a little different. Unlike before, when inspectors from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration would traverse the city looking for violations of phase two restrictions, the ABC Board hasn’t yet said how they will enforce the new mask mandate. They plan to meet Wednesday. “If a fine schedule is adopted a written warning would likely be included for first offenses,” they offered in a statement.

Restaurant workers aren’t just enforcers, they’re educators too. “We had diners come into Shaw’s Tavern on Friday saying they were coming out because it’s the last night they can eat indoors again,” Heidenberger says. “The majority of customers that have been coming don’t know all the rules. That’s understandable. Unless you work in the industry and it affects you directly, they might not read a mayor’s order or watch a press conference.” He bought 1,000 masks to have by the door in case people needed them over the weekend. Almost all of them were taken.

Others didn’t show. “We had brunch and dinner reservations that were canceling due to the order,” Heidenberger says. He too is guessing based on the timing. “Maybe they went to Virginia where there isn’t a mask mandate. As fatigued as staff is, the general public is also fatigued. It’s been nice to not worry about COVID for the last two months, but we’re all seeing how the delta variant needs to be taken seriously. With the mask mandate and overall concern of what could come next, we don’t feel like hashtag D.C. is open.”

People also cancelled corporate events set for the fall. Heidenberger has been in talks with other restaurant owners. “We’re stressed,” he says. “The concern is where this leads. Masks are more of an annoyance and will have an impact on sales, but it’s not the death blow. The death blow would be further restrictions and lockdown in the fall and wintertime.”

Because of the uncertainty ahead, Alicart Restaurant Group CEO Jeff Bank wishes Bowser had coupled her indoor mask mandate announcement with messaging about refilling the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. More than 370,000 businesses applied for money from the $28.6 billion federal relief  program and only 105,000 companies were approved for grants.

Bank thinks his D.C. restaurant, Carmine’s, can weather the ongoing pandemic. The home of nine-inch tall eggplant parm with 750 seats and nine private rooms didn’t see cancellations and postponements like other restaurateurs. But, he says, he fears for smaller independent restaurants that don’t have the same resources.

“I’m happy to be supportive of mayor and safety,” Bank says, adding that vaccination is critical for combatting the delta variant. “Why isn’t the next phrase uttered from the mayor’s mouth: ‘We’re going to require masks. It’s good for the public, but it may hurt hospitality so I’m calling on Congress to refund and pass the RRF.'”