On a recent April weekend, Alexandria mayor Justin Wilson drove to Captain Gregory’s speakeasy, right by the Braddock Road Metro, where he picked up cocktails to-go and a Brussel sprouts appetizer. Then he went next door for a takeout pizza at Lost Dog Cafe. Then he headed down to Del Ray’s main drag for a carryout carton of frozen custard from the Dairy Godmother.
“That was probably the most ridiculous collection that we’ve put together,” Wilson says. “Usually, we just stick to one restaurant.”
Every time the mayor gets takeout for his family — most Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays these days — he tries to documents his meals for more than 4,500 followers on Twitter. For Wilson, it’s a small way to raise visibility for Alexandria restaurants struggling to stay in business while Virginia enforces a dine-in ban to battle the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“In addition to the policy work that I’m doing, I’m also trying to do the work of promoting [restaurants] and showing people all that’s out there,” Wilson says.
Wilson’s account has showed off such orders as a bag full of butter chicken and lamb rogan josh from West End’s London Curry House. One picture shows the mayor wearing a protective mask — something President Donald Trump has refused to do — while ordering a cocktail from Pork Barrel BBQ in Del Ray just after midnight on April 10, the first minute to-go drinks were allowed in the state.
“I purchased what I believe is the first-ever mixed beverage for carryout in Virginia history,” he says.
For the record, it was a rum runner.
So it’s a second after midnight and I’m at @porkbarrelbbq with @BillofDelRay to purchase the very first mixed-beverage for carryout in Virginia.— Justin Wilson (@justindotnet) April 10, 2020
Thanks to @GovernorVA & @VirginiaABC for helping keep our small businesses afloat during this crisis! pic.twitter.com/KuPGyMzJS7
On weekends while his family stays at home, the mayor takes a vote on where to order carryout (sometimes he and his wife outvote the kids). He says the family is trying to be “geographically diverse,” with its takeout picks. He’s also stepping up his exercise routine to keep up with all these meals.
“I’ve always been a runner, but I’ve running a lot more right now,” Wilson says.
When he’s not picking up takeout, the mayor and his economic development team are working through how to offer support to restaurant owners — like by helping them navigate federal financial aid and other available programs.
The coronavirus has delivered a blow for tourist-friendly Alexandria’s budget, which counts on taxes from the hospitality and hotel industries for about 4 percent of its revenue, according to Wilson’s office. Consumer spending represents about an eighth of the budget.
Wilson says he’ll look to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam for direction on when restaurants can reopen in historic Old Town and elsewhere in his Northern Virginia city. Under Virginia’s stay-at-home order, currently set to expire June 10, restaurants in the state are limited to takeout and delivery. Northam has extended the closure of nonessential businesses until at least May 8. Even when restaurants do return to business as usual, Wilson guesses they’ll have to start out with restrictions, including providing more space for customers.
Some longtime Alexandria restaurant owners that have closed down completely have already told the mayor they might not reopen. Replacing whole staffs could prove too difficult.
“For those who have been in business for a long time, I think they’re going to swallow several times to think about whether that’s a good idea to really start back and rebuild everything,” Wilson says.
Leading during a pandemic isn’t what anyone would’ve wished for as a mayor. Through Tuesday, April 21, Virginia health officials reported Alexandria had reported 462 cases of COVID-19, and nine deaths. Neighboring Arlington and Fairfax counties had accounted for another 89 deaths. In the first four weeks of the public health crisis, Alexandria reported 6,986 unemployment claims.
“It’s tough to see people in pain,” Wilson says. “The number of folks I’m talking to who have lost their jobs, and can’t pay their rent, and can’t pay for basic expenses. I think that’s definitely been the most challenging part is to see folks who are really hurting. We are a prosperous city, we have done very well in recent years, and that’s what makes this so jarring. We had very, very low unemployment going into this, and we haven’t seen the latest numbers but we’re experiencing some of the highest unemployment we’ve seen ever and that’s only likely to grow.”
The one thing cheering him up is the spirit of volunteerism he sees in the Alexandria community, whether that’s through fundraisers or folks perusing the Alexandria Curbside Dining group on Facebook. That’s part of the reason Wilson is sharing his carryout meals on Twitter.
“I’m trying to make sure folks realize the connection between those carryout meals you are taking and the ability of, in many cases, a couple of people to feed their families and continue to support their lives. There is a direct connection. This is the best way we can support these folks is by keeping them employed,” he says. “Once they’re unemployed, government has a variety of ways to address that as well, but it’s so much less efficient and so much less productive. Our hope is that we can keep folks employed as long as we can.”
Plus, buying custard is not so bad, as civic duties go.
“I think we have a role to play, certainly those of us who are still drawing an income and are still able to support our families. If you have a little bit to keep these businesses going, it’s an easy way to help,” Wilson says.
“You’re asking me to go out and get some carryout and some really good food? I don’t have to be asked twice on that.”