The four friends were used to meeting up at Ragtime, a tavern in the Court House neighborhood of Arlington, every Friday at noon. For the first time in three months, they were back to their regular routine, sitting down at the restaurant’s outdoor patio to order four White Claws, two quesadillas, wings and shrimp tacos. But the dining experience would be far from the simple and relaxed environment they remembered.
Did they want plastic utensils (fresh and unused) or silverware (nicer but touched by others)? When was the right time to take off their masks? There was no whiskey iced tea because the restaurant had not known whether customers would return and did not want to waste resources. What would they order instead?
“It’s like, I almost feel normal sitting here, but also like I just robbed a bank,” said Christian Lockamy, 34, as he adjusted his bandanna.
They opted for plastic.
As the District and Northern Virginia slowly take steps toward reopening, residents who ventured outdoors, such as the friends at Ragtime, confronted cities both familiar and alien, jubilant yet profoundly on edge.
The first phase of reopening, which began Friday for the two jurisdictions, provided limited parameters for life amid a pandemic. It allowed restaurants to seat customers, but exclusively outdoors. Barbershops could open, but only by appointment. The rest was up to each individual who decided to return to public spaces, which meant that every step through the city, every urge to eat out or use the bathroom, required a hard and fast decision.
When the White Claws arrived, the friends, one by one, took sips with their masks hanging from their chins.
“Now that there is a drink in my hand, I guess I can arbitrarily put my mask down,” said Stephen Rowe, 27, acknowledging the silence that lingered while the friends removed their protective wear.
The friends had decided to meet up Friday after Matthew Hurtt, 33, floated the idea in a group text the night before. Hurtt had just returned from a trip to Dallas to see his family, where the city was abuzz and life seemed refreshingly normal. He decided to bring that same spirit home to Arlington and support his beloved local businesses, saying he feels it is safe for people his age to go out if they act responsibly.
“I was excited when I got that text,” said Rowe, who was disappointed when his antibody test — often used to identify people who might’ve had the virus but recovered — came back negative. “I was ready to get back to it.”
The return to normal, however, first required each friend to determine how to most safely commute to the restaurant. Hurtt walked a few miles, while his three friends opted to hail rides via an app, which they figured was safer than public transportation.
The next set of choices came when they stepped onto the outdoor patio.
“You know the rules — masks on, or you can’t come in,” said bartender Matt Sansing, greeting the regulars in a floral mask and black gloves. For a second, it seemed like the friends would have to go elsewhere as Lockamy fished around in his pocket for his mask. He found it, and the group was clear to sit down.
As Sansing walked them to one of the few tables spaced out on the patio, he made the kind of small talk one does now. “I was cool today,” he said. “My temperature this morning was only 97.1.”
Sansing and his co-workers have gotten used to a new routine over the past few weeks in preparation for this day: mask and gloves on and temperature checked before picking up disposable menus and greeting patrons.
“We just have to be happy that we have some semblance of normalcy, but know that we are not going to get everything right the first time,” said Sam Saslowsky, the restaurant’s general manager. “It is literally like we are walking on shifting sand.”
The group spent their meal raving about the chili lime seasoning and reveling in the pleasures of eating at a restaurant again. When the coronavirus did come up, a topic they tried to avoid, they mused about when musical festivals would return and discussed the upsides of the quarantine.
“I have felt so good from all of this walking,” said Hurtt, who logged 10 miles a day in the past few months. “I get so much done with more energy.”
“Yeah, and these patios are the move,” Rowe said. “I hope they can still extend into sidewalks after the pandemic is over.”
After their meal, the friends signed their checks with pens that would soon be sanitized.
“The quality of that food was like I hadn’t missed a Friday,” said Hurtt, in a shirt that read “Legalize To Go Margaritas Forever.”
“I had gotten so tired of cooking that by week seven I was down for a gas station burrito,” Hurtt said. “This is so much better.”
As the group rose from the table, a new question arose.
Where to next?