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D.C. Restaurants Can Soon Return to Full Capacity With No Social Distancing

Aside from mask requirements, restaurants will return to pre-pandemic operations on Friday, May 21

The main dining room at Imperfecto
Restaurants such as Imperfecto will be allowed to return to full capacity Friday, May 21.
Jennifer Chase/For Imperfecto

D.C. restaurants will be able to return to full capacity Friday, May 21, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced today, giving eating and drinking establishments 11 days to prepare for a sudden move away from a 25 percent cap that’s been in place since late January. That date will mark the first time in roughly 14 months that D.C. restaurants can open with no set limit on the number of people they can pack in.

A representative for the mayor’s office tells Eater that aside from a requirement for masks indoors, all restaurant operations are intended to return to pre-pandemic norms. That means there would no longer be requirements to space tables 6 feet apart, customers will return to standing in common areas and ordering at the bar, and the cutoff on alcohol consumption would move from midnight to the regular 2 a.m. DC Health will issue more general guidelines over the next seven to 10 days.

In a news conference held Monday, May 10, Bowser said the city will lift public health restrictions on the majority of activities May 21, while bars, nightclubs, and large-scale venues for professional sports and live music will hold off on a full reopening until Friday, June 11. “Bars” refers to businesses that are licensed as taverns, so several drinking spots will join the group that fully reopens May 21. Licensed taverns and nightclubs will be allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity on May 21 and go back to pre-pandemic operations June 11. Large sports and entertainment venues will continue to set capacity based on waivers approved by the city, then move to a full-scale reopening June 11.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, D.C. has prohibited customers from sitting at the bar if a bartender was present. Standing spaces at bars and restaurants have been shut down entirely, and customers have been required to order a food item with their drinks.

D.C. mayor’s office

In response to the announcement, a Twitter account for Walter’s bar in Navy Yard cautioned customers not to expect a return to normal while restaurants struggle to find workers.

In the past few weeks, D.C. officials and business leaders have put increasing pressure on Bowser to match changes by nearby governments and ease public health restrictions ahead of a summer tourism season that represents the city’s most lucrative time of the year. D.C.’s indoor dining capacity limits lagged behind major cities such as New York, which moved to 75 percent capacity May 7. Virginia allowed restaurants to operate at full capacity on July 1, 2020, and brought back bar service in mid-April.

Before Bowser’s public address, D.C. City Council member Kenyan McDuffie shared a letter addressed to the mayor Monday that asked for a “roadmap” to reopening. In that letter, McDuffie asserts that the uncertainty around reopening has influenced local staffing shortages for hospitality and service workers who are evaluating whether they want to return to low-wage jobs all over the country. McDuffie’s letter included a statement from Kathy Hollinger, the president and CEO of Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, saying that a business model based around 25 percent indoor capacity is flat-out “not sustainable.”

Two of D.C.’s leading events companies wrote another letter to Bowser, dated May 6, asking for relief. Monumental Sports, the parent company of the city’s NBA, WNBA, and NHL teams that oversees Capital One Arena, and I.M.P., the concert organizer that owns venues such as the 9:30 Club and the Anthem, offered up their venues as vaccination sites and proposed Thursday, July 1 as the date to reopen their spaces at full capacity.

The daily case rate for COVID-19 the city reported May 8 was near the level shown in early October, before a big spike occurring around flu season and holiday traveling. D.C. has not reported a death due to COVID-19 since May 5. The city has reported a total of 1,110 coronavirus deaths.

Updated Monday, May 10, 4:28 p.m. This story has been updated to include clarification from the mayor’s office on what activities will be allowed in restaurants when they move to 100 percent indoor dining capacity May 21.