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Head bartender Sean Hughes cleans a table as the King Street Oyster Bar restaurant in NoMa
Head bartender Sean Hughes cleans a table as the King Street Oyster Bar restaurant in NoMa
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

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D.C. Diners Can Eat at Restaurants, but Not Everyone Feels Safe From COVID-19

“We’re not anywhere close to being out of the woods here,” one woman says

After Mayor Muriel Bowser’s “stay at home” order kept D.C. diners from eating at restaurants for nearly three months, the city let them return last weekend, with guidance to sit outside only at tables spaced at least six feet apart. On Friday, May 29, restaurants welcomed guests on patios, rooftops, and improvised spaces on sidewalks, in alleys, and in parking lots.

Restaurants are taking precautions, but there’s still a risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus, which had accounted for 462 deaths in the District as of the city’s reopening day. While eating and drinking establishments are fighting for the future of their businesses, the stakes are lower for customers. They’re allowed to support their favorite venues, but some still don’t feel safe venturing out.

Kelly Pace Hayes, a marketing executive who lives in Tenleytown, says dining out presents “a complicated moral issue,” but she also trusts city officials when they say the restaurants are ready to begin rebounding.

“The best we can do is follow the experts,” Hayes says.

She looks to the restaurants she has supported and admired for years to set the pace by working with the city’s reopening committee and openly sharing information.

“If they’ve been able to stay safe when it comes to curbside pickup and delivery, I think that spacing tables out and setting up a safe environment is going to be a challenge that they can achieve,” she says. “I also know that if I’m not comfortable with how something’s set up, I can leave.”

Silver Spring resident and restaurant blogger Lori Gardner remains uneasy about going out to eat, but her discomfort has less to do with restaurants and more to do with other customers. She points to the lack of social distancing that’s already been on display on days like Cinco de Mayo, when tightly packed crowds gathered to line up for margarita and taco specials.

“After seeing so much of what happened on Cinco de Mayo, I just don’t think we can trust all of our fellow diners to behave appropriately,” Gardner says.

Gardner, who says she’s in a high-risk category of people who are vulnerable to the virus, has been supporting her favorite restaurants by placing multiple carryout orders, lining up pickup times for one weekend day, and enjoying the meals through the week.

Now she’s concerned that takeout has gotten riskier.

“Before, it was operating very safely,” she says. “I could go right to the door, there’d be a table at the front — in some cases you didn’t even have to go inside the restaurant. How is that going to work now if I want carryout from a restaurant that is also serving on the patio? What’s that going to look like?”

While restaurants were only offering takeout and delivery, prominent places like Centrolina in CityCenter, Emilie’s in Capitol Hill, Timber Pizza Co. in Petworth, and the Salt Line in Navy Yard were just a few that temporarily closed because staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Those restaurants were open about temporarily shutting down operations to test their staffs and undergo deep cleanings.

“It’s like this game of whack-a-mole with restaurants that are opening, and then they have to close again and then reopen,” says Gardner. “We’re not anywhere close to being out of the woods here.”

David Ortiz, who captures his fine dining exploits with the @dcfoodfreak Instagram account, disagrees. “It may not be perfect,” Ortiz says, he but strongly feels that the restrictions are minimizing the risk of exposure to the virus.

Ortiz lives in rural Washington, Virginia. He chose to dine alfresco this weekend at ultra-luxe destination Inn at Little Washington, which recently drew national attention for its plan to fill half-empty dining rooms with mannequins. Ortiz chose the restaurant not only because it’s one of his favorites, but because it’s not in a crowded metropolitan area. Ortiz wanted to see if diners in the city would “behave” over the first weekend of eating outdoors before he felt comfortable making a reservation in the city. Restaurants and diners appeared to be following the rules Friday, and the city’s focus quickly turned to large demonstrations by protesters rallying against police brutality and systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Restaurants all over the city boarded up windows to prevent break-ins, with some temporarily closing.

When it comes to dining out, Ortiz doesn’t deny there’s going to be a possibility of getting sick. But he does not feel it’s too early to begin reopening. He’s eager to start venturing inside dining rooms as soon as possible, which will be allowed in most of Virginia — but not Richmond or Northern Virginia — starting Friday, June 5.

“The fact is it seems that it’s manageable now and, at some point, we’re going to have to live our lives understanding that this thing is here still,” he says. “We’re not going to be able to wait for a cure. … Unless we want everything to close down, we’re going to have to venture out and try to support the world.”

Not every restaurant may have strictly enforced safety policies. A diner from Alexandria, who requested to remain anonymous, ate at Due South in Navy Yard last weekend. They say diners were being very casual about face mask usage and the restaurant was more physically crowded than expected. The restaurant did not respond to multiple requests for a comment, but it has made policies clear to guests through social media posts.

For people who went out last weekend, confrontations between protesters and police seem to be a bigger deterrent to dining outdoors than the potential of contracting the virus. Kyle Thompson, a Shaw resident, says it may feel hypocritical to celebrate dining out while demonstrators protest racial inequality in the streets. COVID-19 has also disproportionately affected the black community. According to D.C. data through June 4, black and African-American people have accounted for 75 percent of the city’s coronavirus-related deaths.

“You want to treat yourself after being in quarantine and isolation for eight weeks. And you also want to do your part to make this country a better place,” Thompson says.

A waitress in a mask and gloves talks to customers in the middle of a busy patio at Mediterranean restaurant Agora
A diner reports that Mediterranean restaurant Agora made them feel safe by encouraging customers to keep masks on as much as possible.
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Thompson ate with a friend at Mediterranean restaurant Agora in Dupont Circle last weekend, taking comfort in the precautions that restaurant was taking. He applauded the staff for following a protocol that included wearing face shields on top of their face masks and requesting that all guests remain masked as much as possible. Thompson’s server demonstrated how to pull masks down or aside when taking a bite to eat or drinking a beverage.

“I felt safe,” he says. “There was just a lot of respect between them asking us to do something but asking in a way which made you feel proud to do.”

Rachel Goldberg, a Park View resident, still worries that D.C. hasn’t seen a downward trend everywhere. Neighboring areas of Columbia Heights and Petworth have reported some of the highest case counts in the city. D.C. saw a spike in its “community spread” metric — which tracks when the onset of symptoms starts and already excludes cases confined communities like nursing homes and jails — days before moving ahead with its reopening. Bowser felt she had to tell reporters the city “had no interest in cooking the books.” Mass gatherings of protesters could also contribute to the virus spreading.

“Given our area, the numbers aren’t necessarily going down, so that gives me pause,” Goldberg says. “I’d like to see that everything can work in conjunction with each other — the numbers go down [and] we continue to practice protocols put in place.”

Goldberg and her husband have been doing their best to support restaurants by ordering to-go meals and groceries. Doing more than that hasn’t felt right.

“Do I want to have the beer out in the sunshine with my friends? Yes. Do I want to support local businesses? Yes. I’m trying to figure out the best way to marry that while also being safe,” she says.

Monica Trauzzi, a local journalist, praised the staff at high-end Italian seafood spot Fiola Mare for making customers’ experience feel just as seamless as a regular service. She says the restaurant did not require diners to remain masked at all times, but the tables were well-spaced, and there were pre-marked paths directing diners to tables and restrooms.

Health experts have warned the nation about a second wave of COVID-19, especially with the latest public gatherings. Dining outdoors mitigates some of the risk, but not if safety guidelines aren’t being followed by restaurant staffers or diners.

For this reason, many restaurants have chosen to remain closed entirely or to stick with a carryout model for longer than they have to. Maggie Margolis, a former executive sous chef at hot spot Maydan, worries that a start-and-stop pattern will force even more restaurants to shutter in the wake of a pandemic.

“Most places won’t survive closing a second time,” she says.

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