The District will shut down indoor dining for three weeks starting Wednesday night, officials said — becoming the latest local jurisdiction to take that step in the face of a surge in coronavirus cases, and leaving some restaurant owners wondering how their businesses will survive.
“Nonessential businesses are required to telework, except in-person staff needed to support minimum business operations,” the order says.
The indoor-dining ban takes effect at 10 p.m. Wednesday. The action comes days after the District reduced indoor dining capacity from 50 percent to 25 percent and required restaurants to close at midnight and stop serving alcohol after 10 p.m. It follows bans on indoor restaurant dining imposed in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City earlier this month.
The Restaurant Association of Maryland announced lawsuits Friday against these jurisdictions, arguing there is no clear link between restaurants and the spread of the coronavirus.
D.C.’s new indoor dining pause was first reported Friday by Washington City Paper. Across the city, as word of a potential indoor dining prohibition spread, restaurateurs grappled to figure out how they would make up for lost revenue.
“It’d be hard” not to have indoor dining, says Ashok Bajaj, owner of the Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which includes Rasika, Annabelle, Modena and the Bombay Club. “I’d have to lay off a lot of the staff members again. It’d be difficult.”
“Twenty-five percent [capacity] was good,” Bajaj added, “because people were coming in. We were able to employ people. We were able to keep the restaurants fresh and not close them.”
Kathy Hollinger, president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said she has warned restaurant operators since Thanksgiving to brace for a potential indoor dining pause. She noted the city is desperately working to regain control of its coronavirus metrics, including rising caseloads and the number of people hospitalized with the virus.
“We feel indoor dining closing has been imminent for the last couple weeks,” Hollinger said. “We knew it was on the horizon, because it was very clear watching the numbers.”
The District reported 274 new cases and three deaths Friday. More than 11 percent of all patients in the city’s hospitals are infected with the virus, a troubling number that has risen daily since mid-November. The 7-day average of newly reported coronavirus cases continues to exceed levels last seen in May — when a broad stay-at-home order was in place that included a ban on restaurant dining, whether indoor or out.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing, it is — but it’s a much more complex issue that’s not just about our industry, but where we are in the country,” Hollinger said. “Any type of relief will be all the more imperative as we go into the cold months.”
Local and state officials are grappling with the challenge of trying to contain the virus while also avoiding legal challenges from those affected by restrictions. Late Wednesday, Bowser eased limits on the sizes of gatherings for worship services in response to a federal lawsuit from the Archdiocese of Washington. The modification specified that houses of worship — as well as city’s largest restaurants, and other venues — could host no more than 250 people at a time.
But now, Bowser is prohibiting indoor dining completely — at least through the middle of next month.
Chef Michael Rafidi opened his Middle Eastern restaurant, Albi, in Navy Yard in February, just a month before the District closed restaurants and bars due to the pandemic. When he got wind on Friday that the city would shut down indoor dining, he turned off his reservation system for those who wanted to eat inside.
Rafidi said he had hoped to serve at least 30 to 40 customers per day inside the restaurant over the winter holidays. Losing indoor dining altogether could impact his restaurant’s ability to operate, he said.
In late May, the chef launched a daytime operation, Yellow Cafe, which sells Middle Eastern pastries, mezze and pita sandwiches. The cafe, which offers takeout and outdoor seating, helped bring in more revenue. “I spend a lot of time trying to figure this out,” he says. “Whatever we have to do to adapt is what we have to do.”
Zac Hoffman, executive vice president of the D.C. Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance, said he had hoped the city would find a way to avoid shutting down indoor dining, which will drastically reduce the amount of pay many workers take home.
The District opened applications for its Bridge Fund earlier this month, which allocates $35 million in relief to restaurants. While Hoffman acknowledged the aid will help, he said conditions for restaurateurs and their staffs will only grow more dire without additional federal relief.
“Before we say we need to close dining, bars and restaurants, we need to put the same energy into expanding unemployment, making sure people are able to have an income while we close them,” Hoffman said. “I don’t want restaurants to be a source of infections and compromise people’s ability to live a safe and healthy life — at the same time, there are a lot of people who rely on restaurants as a reliable source of income, and they need help.”