“It’s Emmanuel’s turn,” said her classmate Neah Banks, 23, as the friends noshed on tacos and quesadillas to celebrate their graduation — a year belated.
“Well my career is on hold, blah blah blah,” Emmanuel Key, 23, said, gesturing with his hands to highlight the socially distanced tables and waiters in masks.
Outside Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana on what should have been its busiest day of the year, outdoor dining capacity remained constrained by six-foot distancing guidelines. Inside was maxed out at 25 percent capacity.
Businesses that thrive (and profit) on facilitating human connection are gearing up for what they hope will be a redux of the Roaring ’20s — when the end of lockdown breeds a sort of epic jubilance that drives people to reunite at crowded bars and lavish events. But it’s not quite party time in Washington.
As public health experts continue to monitor coronavirus infection and vaccination rates, D.C.’s business owners are suspended in a middle ground of partial reopenings and patchwork regulations. They say especially stringent restrictions in the District are sending their customers and employees to surrounding suburbs. Some businesses are coming up with their own policy recommendations to expedite the growing pains of recovery.
On May 1, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) eased the city’s coronavirus restrictions to allow nonessential retail businesses to operate at 50 percent capacity and multipurpose venues to open at 25 percent capacity or up to 500 people. The new guidelines amount to the most freedom District residents have had in more than a year, but they stop well short of the rollbacks underway in neighboring suburbs and other cities nationwide — threatening to send foot traffic outside of Washington.
Bowser has said she is relaxing guidelines at a rate that allows her to monitor the effects of increased social activity, which she hopes will keep the city from backsliding.
“We think and we expect that given our case rates and how they’re going down even more quickly than we thought, we will be able to ease restrictions across the board, and we are looking forward to being able to do that pretty soon,” she said at a Washington Post Live event Thursday.
Still, while New York City prepares for a major reopening in less than two weeks, D.C. bars are de facto functioning as restaurants — with patrons prohibited from sitting at bar counters and required to order food if they want to drink inside. Restaurants, meanwhile, remain capped at 25 percent capacity indoors, while those in Montgomery County, Md., are operating at 50 percent. As in the rest of Virginia, restaurateurs in Arlington and Alexandria can offer indoor dining as long as tables are set six feet apart and private parties are limited to 50 or fewer people. For outdoor seating, as many as 100 people are allowed for private events.
“It is hard to ignore what is happening all around us as everyone is moving forward, as big plans are being made to reopen in a much fuller way, and we are still at the place that we are,” said Kathy Hollinger, president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington. “It’s really frustrating for our operators.”
The managing director of the Old Town Business Association, Charlotte Hall, on the other hand, said she is thrilled by the sudden injection of energy into her neighborhood.
“We are happy to welcome people to Alexandria, we are very proud,” she said. “I’d like to think that we’ve showed them a good time and a safe experience, and so maybe they’ll keep coming back.”
Some of the renewed vibrancy in Northern Virginia comes from couples eager to tie the knot after a new D.C.-specific policy banned standing and dancing at weddings.
“There are people who just don’t want to get married without dancing,” said Sara Bauleke, who runs the D.C.-based wedding planning company Bella Notte. She has been burning the midnight oil over the past few weeks exploring venues in Arlington and Alexandria for couples once determined to wed in the nation’s capital.
Frustration is also palpable among owners of D.C.’s entertainment venues, who watched with envy as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced that he would lift all capacity limitations on June 15. Multipurpose venues in D.C. remain capped at 50 percent indoors, which business operators say does not allow for enough revenue to cover overhead costs like staffing and rent.
As a result, businesses including the 9:30 Club and Madam’s Organ Blues Bar have stayed entirely shuttered even as much of the country barrels toward revitalization. They worry their supporters will develop new loyalties in the suburbs.
Bill Duggan, who owns Madam’s Organ, said one of his longtime managers recently found employment at a bar in the Clarendon area of Arlington and can now work with him only on Mondays and Tuesdays. Audrey Schaefer, communications director for I.M.P., which owns the 9:30 Club and other music venues, said she is worried that bands planning their comeback tours will skip D.C. and opt for other cities that can sell out stadiums.
To accelerate what they see as a devastating in-between period for Washington businesses, a coalition of venue owners, performers and music industry advocates are pushing for the city to consider a “vaccine passport.”
On April 22, 19 music and nightlife industry representatives logged on to Zoom for their weekly nightlife stakeholders meeting.
“If you look at the restrictions, even with the May 1 changes, they are ridiculous,” Duggan said. “Unless I can figure out a way to hang my customers on a wall, there is no way we can have a crowd in there.”
“The only simple thing to do is have a vaccine passport,” said Maija Rejman, a musician, composer and presenter. “I think we have to storm the mayor’s office with letters requesting that they seriously look at a vaccination passport for any kind of entertainment gatherings.”
Over the hour-long meeting, the participants came to a consensus that requiring vaccination to enter venues could allow businesses to get back on their feet while also providing incentives for people to get their shots.
The coalition sent a letter to Bowser on April 30 — following up on a previous note Duggan sent himself — requesting time with D.C. Department of Health and other city officials “to create a framework that will allow music venues to return to hosting live music performance at or near full capacity.”
The letter outlined a draft proposal to open live entertainment venues at 75 percent capacity while requiring audience members to provide “some sort of official documentations that they have been fully vaccinated against covid-19.”
Reopen D.C. Committee Co-Chair Angie Gates responded to the letter on May 1, thanking the coalition for “taking the time to voice your concerns and provide recommendations” and promising to review the proposal over the weekend.
City orders currently allow businesses to request to see someone’s vaccine card or proof of vaccination, but do not address whether businesses can ask for such proof if they want to exceed capacity limits.
Other local business owners have expressed hesitation about proof of vaccination acting as a golden ticket for entry.
“There is a bit of scariness to me of a world of people who are vaxxed and another of those who aren’t,” said Ian Hilton, who owns some of the city’s most popular bars. “I think it’s such a personal choice for people, and I don’t like to get into anyone’s personal health choice.”
Duggan, though spearheading the charge for vaccine passports, has experienced firsthand the difficulties of requiring vaccination. He made clear to his staff and performers that they must be vaccinated to return to his venue when it reopens, even driving many of them to vaccine appointments over the past months.
One of his longtime saxophonists, however, refused vaccination.
Duggan told him he could not return to Madam’s Organ.