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D.C. Eases Some Restrictions on Restaurants But Keeps Indoor Capacity at 25 Percent

Starting May 1, bars and restaurants can increase the number of people in a single party and host live music outside

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Petes Diner owner Gum Tong stands outside her Capitol Hill restaurant
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Tierney Plumb is the editor of Eater DC, covering all things food and drink around the nation's capital.

Starting May 1, D.C. restaurants will be allowed to seat up to 10 people in a single party, and customers who want to drink outside will no longer have to buy a food item to go with their beverages, but indoor dining capacity will remain at a 25-percent cap that has been in place since late January.

Those changes will arrive among several tweaks to public health restrictions within D.C.’s Phase 2 reopening order that Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Health director LaQuandra Nesbitt announced Monday, April 26.

Expanding party sizes from the previous six-person limit should help restaurants and bars attract larger tabs and will save them time from policing customers who have already circumvented the rules. Removing a mandate to serve a food item with drinks will spare bars such as Trade from stocking items like stale popcorn (or mayo sandwiches) that were intended to meet the minimal requirements. Without having to come up with a food option, more bars can be expected to emerge from a winter hiatus and join the reopening surge ahead of summer.

In its latest update, D.C. also announced that restaurants with outdoor spaces will also be allowed to host live music next month, which could put more artists back to work and add to a sense of normalcy returning across the city. Concert venues and theaters may reopen at 25 percent capacity (or up to 500 people), and attendees must be seated.

Restaurateurs and service workers who are frustrated that D.C. isn’t allowing more people to eat and drink inside will still have to wait. Virginia, by contrast, does not enforce a capacity limit but does require restaurants to space out tables and keep customers seated. Last week, Governor Ralph Northam allowed bartenders to serve customers at bartops again. Boston has also removed capacity caps. In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan announced in March that restaurants were allowed to reopen with no capacity limits as long as tables remained seated and socially distanced. Each jurisdiction is permitted to move at its own pace, however. The Montgomery County Council voted to expand indoor dining capacity from 25 to 50 percent, starting March 26. And Prince George’s County restaurants started operating at half capacity that month.

Philadelphia allows 50 percent capacity inside restaurants that meet ventilation standards. New York City increased indoor dining capacity from 35 percent to 50 percent in mid-March,

Bowser says D.C. will reassess indoor dining capacity and restrictions at a later date, acknowledging the city would like to be farther along by July 4.

“The way to get all the way back is to crush this virus and to get people vaccinated,” Bowser said at Monday’s news conference. We are trying to moderate the restrictions where they are warranted and safe.”

D.C. began permitting restaurants to allow alcohol consumption until midnight a month ago, two hours later than a cutoff that had been in place since late November.

D.C. still requires all customers to wear a face mask at bars and restaurants when they’re not actively eating and drinking.

The city has seen a 24 percent decline in its seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in the past week. Only 20.2 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, according to city data. The city’s attempts to control an equitable vaccine rollout led some residents to look for shots in neighboring states and others to snag appointments at pharmacies that had received a federally distributed supply. In May, D.C. is transitioning its efforts from an appointment-only portal to 11 high-capacity walk-up sites. Bowser said last week that every D.C. resident that registered for a vaccine appointment had been contacted by the city.

Gabe Hiatt contributed to this report