Tony Tomelden giggles and continues to pause, stopping in the middle of a sentence before starting, stopping and giggling some more. On Monday afternoon, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the city would lift all restaurant capacity restrictions on Friday, May 21. Some bars, nightclubs, and live entertainment venues will resume operations after returning to normal operations on June 11th, a huge relocation by a local government that held onto 25 percent capacity for three months, even if surrounding states warned and major cities in other parts of the country had started Relaxation of restrictions on indoor service and allow a greater proportion of the people inside. At the time of the announcement, Tomelden, owner of the battered H Street NE bar The Pug and co-owner of Brookland’s Finest watering hole and downtown Union Trust drink place, wasn’t sure how to understand the news.
„I’m a little overwhelmed when I think about it,” he says. „That’s uncomfortable laughter.”
The city’s big announcement only referred to changes in capacity limits, so bar and restaurant owners had to worry about the other pandemic restrictions. Would they have to keep tables six feet of art apart? Could they start pouring drinks for customers sitting at the bar serving alcohol beyond the current midnight limit? Mayor’s office staff later told Eater and other outlets that the moves should mark a return to prepandemic norms for all operations except an indoor mask requirement. Nuanced differences between alcohol licenses will also shift the degree and timing of reopening. Companies that are licensed as „restaurants” can reopen in full on May 21st, while companies that operate as „restaurants”Taverns”- a distinction mostly to do with dance floors and grandfather permits – is allowed to open at half capacity on that day before expanding to full capacity three weeks later.
For Tomelden and other operators who spoke to Eater, the change feels like a U-turn. Bowser has preached caution in the past, generally teasing July 4th as a return to normalcy target. DCs initial fights With Give vaccines also caused uncertainty about the safety of such a move, even if three weeks Trend is decreasing in the daily case, the rate showed that the city was on the verge of reaching its benchmark for minimal parish expansion. In a single day, that reopening timeline escalated dramatically.
„I’m a little baffled that we’re going from zero to 60,” says Tomelden. „I’m not complaining. I’m just trying to find out.”
The Pug, which is licensed as a tavern, has remained closed for the entire 14 months of the DC public health emergency and serves as a pop-up area for Peregrine Espresso to sell coffee during the day. On Monday afternoon, Tomelden didn’t know if it could open 50 percent, which would mean room for 16 to 20 people or if capacity is lower due to social distancing protocols.
The prospect of a comeback brought a flurry of questions. Would he run for an hour himself and bring a night bartender, or would he hire someone for a full shift at the pug? Do his employees want to keep the pug open again seven days a week? Will he close the bar after midnight if he can? „When they say it was two hours since the last call, I’m not sure how my old ass is going to stay up that long,” he says. „I went to bed earlier.” And between patio service and snack, Brooklands Finest was just crushed on Sunday. Could they continue to place on-the-go orders once customers venture into the house?
Tomelden describes himself as „cautiously optimistic” that the capacity expansion will work well for those restaurants that have been forced to drop in, work on the fly and advocate for aid programs for over a year. He just hopes the customers will be patient with the workers companies can find along the way a national staff shortage. During the pandemic, Tomelden became part-time managing Director Citol Hill Chamber of Commerce. He says that when he called Zoom on Monday, a member who owns a retail store spoke of „fear” because the store’s employees were not all fully vaccinated.
The safety of restaurant workers is the primary concern of Genevieve Villamora, general manager of the hip Filipino restaurant Bad Saint in Columbia Heights. She spent the pandemic thinking about news and data to develop expertise in infectious diseases. Following the city’s announcement, she said she felt “shocked” and “blind” by the city’s decisions.
„What I heard from colleagues, and from other people in the industry in general, was that this was a completely insane idea,” says Villamora. „Everyone just says, ‘How is this supposed to work?’ Everyone says it’s way too early. „
A flawed website, delays in reporting federal data, and proximity to other states where people could shoot, all of which were included in a potential vaccine rollout made DC Pear a worse job than it was. Restaurant workers have been eligible for the vaccine since mid-March. The city now has 11 walkable places for people with no point to get a shot. Several tracker move out CDC data show that DC fully vaccinated more than 34 percent of its population, which is roughly the middle of the US state. New York City Reports that 36 percent of the population is and will be fully vaccinated Go to full-city dining on May 19, but with distancing measures.
DC’s stats don’t comfort Villamora at all. Bad Saint waited to open take away only until June last year and it has introduced innovation after innovation to stay open. This includes trying out a breakfast menu, organizing group orders for „neighborhood drops” in the suburbs, starting a newsletter to raise awareness, starting a wine club with virtual courses, and running a holiday market. She says there’s no comparison between Bad Saint’s earnings now and before the pandemic, but she feels good about creating an environment where her employees feel safe, not vulnerable or at risk.
„I feel like this announcement really makes it clear that money is important and people don’t,” says Villamora. „I can’t understand it any other way.”
Many bar and restaurant owners will of course welcome this return, even if they decide not to jump in right away. Carmine’s, the Italian-American chain known for offering family-style portions at locations in New York, Atlantic City, and Vegas, plans to reopen its 20,000-square-foot DC restaurant near the Cital One Arena on June 22nd .
“We are very happy to finally reopen. It was a brutal year for the employees, and we couldn’t open 25 percent, ”says CEO Jeff Bank.
The bank doesn’t anticipate having enough staff to immediately revert to the capacity of the huge, 800-seat space. Hence, he regards a summer return as a „soft opening”. Following Monday’s announcement, he says phones have been ringing to book nine private dining rooms for everything from late proms to anniversaries. He hopes that changes to the law in DC will allow patios to take over sidewalks and that third-party delivery charges will remain in place. „We hope the DC government will realize that just because we are 100 percent our problems are not over,” he says.
Hill Restaurant Group, which made headlines on social media in March 2020 with a short-lived promise to ignore the city’s initial dine-in ban, also backed Bowser’s move. „She made a good decision and I hope she doesn’t try to withdraw it,” says managing partner Tom Johnson.
Finding employees will be a „crazy blow,” but Johnson says he got the idea of throwing makeup parties on St. Patrick’s Day and staying late at Stadium Sports, the company’s recently refurbished sports bar near the Nationals Park in Navy, supply yard. Johnson owns restaurants in the Florida Keys, where he says business has grown 100 to 150 percent since 2019.
„I think people will come out now, now that they are not socially embarrassed,” says Johnson. “It is time for people to take responsibility for their own well-being. If they don’t like going out, don’t go out. „
Tierney Plumb contributed to this report.