Months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic left their dining rooms abandoned, local Georgetown restaurants are seating customers once again and adjusting to a new reality under Phase Two of the Washington, D.C. reopening plan.
Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) transitioned the District into the second phase of reopening June 22, allowing indoor dining in restaurants, shopping in nonessential businesses and the opening of recreational facilities with safety restrictions. Bowser ordered restaurants and bars to shut their doors March 16, limiting operations to curbside pickup and delivery options.
Although COVID-19 closures were difficult for restaurants, prioritizing safety was the right decision, according to Juan Andino, food and alcohol manager at Mr. Smith’s of Georgetown, a restaurant and piano bar on K Street.
“I think the government has been doing the right thing by continuing to go slowly,” Andino said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “It hurts a lot of businesses, including my business, but in the long run I think it’s the right thing to do.”
The sudden and drastic economic slowdown has taken a heavy toll on businesses that tend to rely on in-person operations for the bulk of their revenue, such as restaurants. Many Georgetown restaurants were able to stay afloat during the District’s shutdown and have cautiously recommenced in-person dining.
Relying solely on takeout and delivery orders was enough to sustain some businesses throughout the pandemic, according to Bettina Stern, co-founder of Chaia Tacos, located on Grace Street.
“To minimize the concerns by our employees and to follow suggested social distancing requirements, we made the decision on 3/15 (just ahead of Mayor Bowser’s directive) to move from regular service hours to limited hours, a pared-down menu, and only offering take out and delivery via in-store orders and online,” Stern wrote in an email to The Hoya. “This plan allowed us to minimize employee contact and to reduce labor costs, as well as to operate with a two-person team (one owner and one kitchen employee in each store).
Reopening a restaurant while COVID-19 is still a threat requires careful planning and the acquisition of personal protective equipment. The Georgetown Business Improvement District has been helping establishments open their doors by communicating frequently, creating flyers and providing necessary safety materials, according to Lauren Boston, communications director for the BID.
“The BID has been sending our members updates almost daily with information and resources regarding DC’s phased reopenings, to ensure they are aware of and following the guidance. We worked with the city to distribute PPE packages to businesses,” Boston wrote in an email to The Hoya. “The Georgetown BID has created face mask and social distancing signage that we have placed throughout the commercial district and also sent to our members, should they wish to use that signage within their own businesses.”
The BID also assisted restaurants in acquiring permits for outdoor sidewalk dining spaces, an environment that puts customers more at ease, according to Andino.
“The Georgetown BID also helped us open up our outdoor eatery — they call it a ‘streatery,’” Andino said. “So now we have a few tables outdoors of the restaurant, which also helps because it’s outdoors and people feel safe being out there. We spaced out the tables — gave each table at least six feet separation between each other. People feel better sitting outside: they are able to take off their mask to be able to eat and drink.”
Though many restaurants were able to pivot to delivery or takeout to sustain operations, some Georgetown restaurants were unable to stay above water. The America Eats Tavern, a popular eatery on M Street founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres, shuttered in late June. An M Street storefront for Le Pain Quotidien, a national breakfast chain, also shut down.
Even with increased customer traffic, restaurants that have managed to reopen are still struggling with the pandemic’s financial pressures. Businesses are still producing much less revenue than they have during regular summers.
“It’s night and day,” Andino said. “This time last year, we were doing sales over $100,000; this year, we’re lucky if we get to $25,000, maybe $30,000 sales for this month.”
Despite the considerable drop in revenue compared to previous years, there has been a gradual increase in profits since reopening, according to Stern.
“We are currently at sales of < 50% Year-Over-Year, but Week-Over-Week, sales have been improving ever-so-slightly,” Stern wrote in an email to The Hoya. “If we can continue to serve good food and keep some of our staff working, when things do pick back up again, we will be poised and ready to get back to business ‘as usual’.”
Safety precautions and finances are not the only issues restaurants are dealing with. Waitstaff have had to contend with abusive behavior from customers, according to Gregory Casten, owner of Nick’s Riverside Grill, located in the Georgetown Waterfront complex.
“We had somebody screaming at our staff yesterday because we wouldn’t split a check,” Casten said in a phone interview with The Hoya. “I personally think the staff is more at risk than the customer.”
Encounters have centered around customers’ disapproval of employees wearing masks, according to Casten.
“Some people are fucking assholes. I mean, it’s literally shocking — they pull masks off the staff, say, ‘You don’t need that,’ ‘This is all bullshit,’” Casten said. “I just want you to wear a mask because the government is telling you you’re supposed to. That’s really been the number one issue for us.”
Patrons and community members have also had a positive impact on the reopening process, helping restaurants and their staff get through the pandemic, according to Stern.
“The restaurant community has the impulse to lean into adversity and, typically, we are culture bearers and community gathering places,” Stern wrote. “During this time though, it is our customers and our neighbors who are scrambling to help our restaurant and our employees to survive this crisis. We are thankful to each and every one of them for supporting us.”