The potential for the novel coronavirus to overwhelm local healthcare systems hit home for Joe Neuman last week, when the Arlington-based pitmaster saw his 7-year-old daughter develop a cough and a fever. Neuman, who owns the popular brand of Sloppy Mama’s barbecue stalls and a new standalone store on Lee Highway, tried twice to get his daughter and himself tested for COVID-19 in Arlington County. Both times doctors turned them away, telling them that people under 18 weren’t being tested, and he couldn’t get a test because he wasn’t showing symptoms.
By choice, Neuman shut down all Sloppy Mama’s operations on Wednesday, March 18, and he’s struck by the fact that he hadn’t been forced to close.
“I can speak from first-hand experience that Virginia is very inadequately prepared to handle wide-scale public health testing,” Neuman says. “So, I [have been] pleading with business owners to make the very difficult decision to shut down because the longer that we continue to stay open and have people moving about, the longer it will take to recover from the coronavirus.”
Unlike D.C. and Maryland, Virginia was still allowing restaurants to host a limited amount of customers in their dining rooms last week. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam did not make that call until Monday, when he announced a dine-in ban of at least 30 days and ordered schools closed for the rest of the season.
Northam instituted a 10-person limit in dining rooms a day before Neuman closed up shop.
Neuman still doesn’t know if his daughter has the virus. He says she’s recovering from her illness, but he had been waiting to see the state government do more. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that the state saw a 44 percent increase in COVID-19 cases from Saturday to Sunday. As of Sunday, 219 people in Virginia had tested positive for the virus, and six people had died.
Sloppy Mama’s has established a GoFundMe page for employees that’s already raised more than $3,300.
While it appears the majority of restaurants had already moved to takeout and delivery only, there were a few exceptions. Out in Clifton, well-known Trummer’s bistro tried serving customers spread across three different rooms before eventually shifting to curbside pickup and delivery only. A map published by the Falls Church News-Press showed seven restaurants that were still offering dine-in services there last week.
Several other Northern Virginia restaurant groups who share Neuman’s sentiment had voluntarily locked their doors or already moved solely to delivery and takeout.
“The onus is on the operator to make the right decision for the community, and we all know what that choice should be,” says Jon Krinn, chef-owner of essential fine-dining destination Clarity in Vienna. “I chose 10 days ago to go to takeout only, using curbside service. ... The faster we go to a maximum solution, the faster we will all be able to reset and get back to a new normal.”
In Clarendon, restaurateur Ivan Iricanin closed all his venues — Balkan staple Ambar, Baba, the Buena Vida/TTT complex — on Sunday, a decision that forced him to lay off more than 200 people. Iricanin had plans to mimic the signature bottomless menus with a five-course takeout option through an inventive subscription plan, but he scrapped it to keep his employees from risking exposure to the coronavirus. For now, unemployed workers can come into the restaurants and get food to take home.
“If we all stop socializing today, it’s going to be earlier that we’re going to be out drinking and having fun,” Iricanin says.
Chef Seng Luangrath, the city’s foremost representative for Lao cuisine, made the move Sunday to close all of her family’s restaurants. That includes Padaek in Falls Church, Sen Khao in Tysons Galleria, and Thip Khao and Hanumanh in D.C.
“We are family-run, and each of our employees is an extension of our own,” she says in an Instagram post. “With many considerations, takeout options resulted to be unsustainable, and right now, our main priority is maintaining our staff.”
Gabe Hiatt contributed reporting to this article
Updated March 23, 2020, 3:04 p.m. This story has been updated to reflect Virginia’s move to close all restaurants to dine-in customers