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D.C.’s Quick Shift Toward Full-Capacity Dining Surprises Restaurant Owners

Restaurants and some bars are scrambling to prepare to open at full capacity on May 21 after more than a year of partial shutdowns and social distancing requirements

Dinners relax at Mezcalero Cocina Mexicana on the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo, in Washington D.C., Wednesday, May 5, 2021. As more people are vaccinated, businesses are finding themselves struggling to keep up in understanding the latest regulations as they ramp back up.
D.C. restaurants like Mezcalero will welcome back customers at full capacity on Friday, May 21.
Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Tony Tomelden keeps chuckling and pausing, stopping himself mid-sentence before starting, stopping, and chuckling some more. On Monday afternoon, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the city would lift all capacity limits on restaurants on Friday, May 21, with some bars, nightclubs, and live entertainment venues following the return to normal operations on June 11. That policy change marks a huge shift from a local government that held tight to a 25 percent capacity cap for three months, advising caution even as surrounding states and major cities in other parts of the country had begun loosening restrictions on indoor service and allowing a larger share of people inside. At the time of the announcement, Tomelden, owner of the well-worn H Street NE bar the Pug and a co-owner of the neighborhood watering hole Brookland’s Finest and downtown drinking spot Union Trust, wasn’t sure how to make sense of the news.

“I am a little overwhelmed as I think about it,” he says. “This is uncomfortable laughter.”

The city’s big announcement referred only to changes in capacity limits, leaving bar and restaurant owners to wonder about the other pandemic restrictions. Would they have to keep spacing tables six feet apart? Could they start pouring drinks for customers seated at bar tops, and serve alcohol beyond the current midnight cutoff? Aides in the mayor’s office later clarified to Eater and other outlets that the moves were intended to mark a return to pre-pandemic norms for all operations except a mask requirement indoors. Nuanced differences between alcohol licenses will also stagger the degree and timing of reopenings. Businesses licensed as “restaurants” will be able to reopen at full tilt May 21, while those operating as “taverns” — a distinction having mostly to do with dance floors and grandfathered permits — will be permitted to open at half capacity that day, before expanding to full capacity three weeks later.

For Tomelden and other operators who spoke to Eater, the change feels like an about-face. Bowser has preached caution in the past and generally teased July 4 as a target for a return to normalcy. D.C.’s initial struggles with administering vaccines also caused uncertainty over the safety of such a move, even if three weeks of trending decreases in the daily case rate showed that the city was close to reaching its benchmark for minimal community spread. In a single day, that reopening timeline escalated dramatically.

“I’m a little flummoxed that we’re going from zero to 60,” Tomelden says. “I am not complaining. I’m just trying to figure it out.”

D.C. bar owner Tony Tomelden, left, with business partner John Solomon in front of Union Trust.
D.C. bar owner Tony Tomelden, left, with business partner John Solomon in front of Union Trust.
Tierney Plumb/Eater D.C.

The Pug, which is licensed as a tavern, has remained closed for the entire 14 months of D.C.’s public health emergency, serving as a pop-up space for Peregrine Espresso to sell coffee during the day. As of Monday afternoon, Tomelden didn’t know if he’d be able to open at 50 percent, which would mean room for 16 to 20 people, or at a lower capacity because of social distancing protocols.

The prospect of a comeback brought on a flood of questions. Would he run happy hour himself and bring in a night bartender, or would he hire someone for a whole shift at the Pug? Will his staff want to keep the Pug open seven days a week again? Will he close the bar past midnight once he’s allowed to do that? “If they say last call goes back two hours, I’m not sure how my old ass is going to stay up that late anymore,” he says. “I’ve been going to bed earlier.” And between patio service and takeout, Brookland’s Finest just got crushed on Sunday. Could they keep making to-go orders once customers ventured inside?

Tomelden describes himself as “cautiously optimistic” that the expansion in capacity will work out well for those restaurants that have been forced to scrape by, adapt on the fly, and apply for relief programs for over a year. He just hopes customers are patient with the workers businesses are able to find during a national staffing shortage. During the pandemic, Tomelden became a part-time executive director of Capitol Hill’s Chamber of Commerce. He says that on a Monday Zoom call, one member who owns a retail shop spoke of being “terrified” because the shop’s workers hadn’t all been fully vaccinated.

The safety of restaurant workers is the primary concern for Genevieve Villamora, managing owner at the hip Filipino restaurant Bad Saint in Columbia Heights. She has spent the pandemic poring over news reports and data in an attempt to develop expertise in infectious diseases. Following the city’s announcement, she says she’s feeling “shocked” and “blindsided” by the city’s decisions.

“What I’ve heard from peers and what I’ve heard from other industry folks universally has been that this is a totally insane idea,” Villamora says. “Everyone’s just like, ‘How is this supposed to work?’ Everyone is saying it’s way too soon.”

A buggy website, delays in federal data reporting, and proximity to other states where people could get shots all factored into a vaccine rollout that may have made D.C. appear to be doing a worse job than it was. Restaurant workers have been eligible for the vaccine since mid-March. The city now has 11 walk-up sites where people can get a shot without an appointment. Multiple trackers pulling from CDC data show that D.C. has fully vaccinated more than 34 percent of its population, which ranks around the middle of the pack of U.S. states. New York City reports that 36 percent of its population is fully vaccinated and will move to full-capacity dining on May 19, but with distancing measures in place.

D.C.’s statistics don’t comfort Villamora at all. Bad Saint waited until June last year to open for takeout only, and it has adopted innovation after innovation to stay open. That includes trying out a breakfast menu, organizing group orders for “neighborhood drops” in the suburbs, starting a newsletter to raise awareness, launching a wine club with virtual classes, and running a holiday market. She says “there’s no comparison” between Bad Saint’s revenue now and before the pandemic, but she feels good about creating an environment in which her staff feels safe, not vulnerable or compromised.

“I feel like what this announcement makes really clear is that money matters and people don’t,” Villamora says. “I can’t make sense of it any other way.”

Many bar and restaurant owners, of course, will welcome that return in business, even if they decide not to jump right in. Carmine’s, the Italian American chain known for heaping family-style portions at locations across New York, Atlantic City, and Vegas, is targeting a June 22 reopening for its 20,000-square-foot D.C. restaurant near Capital One Arena.

“We are very excited to finally get reopened. It’s been a brutal year for employees, and 25 percent was not viable for us to open,” CEO Jeff Bank says.

Bank doesn’t anticipate having enough staff to return to the massive space’s 800-seat capacity right away, so he’s viewing a summer return as a “soft opening.” Following Monday’s announcement, he says phones have been ringing off the hook to book nine private dining rooms for everything from belated proms to anniversaries. He’s hoping legislative changes in D.C. allowing patios to take over sidewalks and capping third-party delivery fees stick around. “We hope the D.C. government realizes that just because we’re at 100 percent, our problems aren’t over,” he says.

Hill Restaurant Group, which drew headlines in March 2020 with a short-lived promise on social media to ignore the city’s initial dine-in ban, was also supportive of Bowser’s move. “She made a good decision and I hope she doesn’t try to pull it back,” managing partner Tom Johnson says.

Finding employees will be a “mad dash,” but Johnson says he’s floating the idea of throwing make-up St. Patrick’s Day parties and catering to a late-night crowd at Stadium Sports, the company’s recently retooled sports bar near Nationals Park in Navy Yard. Johnson owns restaurants in the Florida Keys, where he says business is up 100 to 150 percent since 2019.

“I think people will come out now, now that they’re not going to be socially shamed,” Johnson says. “It’s time to let people take responsibility for their own well-being. If they’re not comfortable going out, don’t go out.”

Tierney Plumb contributed to this report.