Metro Weekly

D.C. is lifting capacity restrictions. What does that mean for gay bars?

Bar owners are excited but awaiting further guidance about the District's plan to end COVID-19 restrictions on June 11.

Pitchers/ALOHO – Courtesy Pitchers

D.C.’s LGBTQ bar and nightclub owners are thrilled at the District’s plans to lift capacity restrictions, as the city slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting May 21, restaurants will begin operating at full capacity, while bars and nightclubs will be at 50% capacity. Other communal gathering places, including gyms, pools, and offices, will be operating at full capacity as of that date, and there will be no restrictions on private house parties.

All remaining restrictions on bars and nightclubs and large sports or entertainment venues will be completely lifted on June 11, under a plan released by the Office of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

However, while the dates for easing of restrictions appear set in stone, DCist reported on Tuesday that the recent drop in COVID-19 cases — a key metric for reopening — may have been incorrect, due to a computer error that led to a lag in reporting cases. According to DCist, the average number of new cases had not actually fallen below the target set by the city for reopening.

Requests for comment from the mayor’s office and from the D.C. Department of Health regarding the reporting error and its effect on reopening were not returned as of press time.

For those venues popular among the D.C. LGBTQ community, the loosening of restrictions is seen as a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Many were forced to improvise in order to stay open during the pandemic. Some offered food items to patrons to meet city requirements. Nearly all bars required patrons to remain at tables, prohibiting them from moving around.

Some bars — particularly those without a rooftop space — expanded their outdoor seating options by setting up open-air tents or extending seating to the curb. Others began instituting a reservation system to ensure that they could stay below the capacity limitations.

See also: D.C’s LGBTQ bars struggle to adapt after ban on indoor dining

The Dirty Goose, which offered cookies alongside alcohol during the pandemic, celebrated the news in a Facebook post welcoming customers back, touting some of its newer renovations and aesthetic changes, and teasing plans for Pride Weekend, which will occur from June 11-13.

“What a year! There was a lot of bad and ugly, but we will focus on the GOOD! We could not have made it this far without each and every one of you,” the post read. “We are so happy to announce that full bar service will RETURN June 11th in accordance with Mayor Bowser’s announcement. For those of you who have continuously visited over the past year, THANK YOU!

“Keep your eyes on our page for PRIDE WEEKEND updates (the lineup is pure TDG), the return of Happy Hour and a few more surprises.”

In a post on his personal Facebook page, co-owner Justin Parker wrote of his excitement at reopening and thanked patrons, whom he credited with keeping the bar afloat during the pandemic.

“I can’t wait to get TDG back to its former glory,” he wrote. “We haven’t even been able to see people STAND on the expanded rooftop yet!”

David Perruzza, owner of Pitchers DC and A League Of Her Own, says it is “fantastic” to be able to operate at full capacity on May 21, due to his restaurant license. He does not have plans to open Pitchers’ dance floor on the first weekend, however.

“We’re doing a mass hiring on Monday and Tuesday,” he said. “Essentially, we went from operating on a minimal staff and smaller floors and smaller margins to having to order more liquor and get everything up to par for what we would do on a weekend where we’d normally be open.”

pitchers dc
Pitchers — Photo: Todd Franson

“It’s going to do wonders for us, because we’ll be back to normal,” he continues. “When you’re not normal for over a year and your business is taking out loans to survive, it’s nice that you can start making your own money.”

One area Perruzza feels needs further clarification is masking protocol in bars. While the city has introduced guidelines for masking based on a person’s vaccination status, and bars and nightclubs are allowed to request proof of vaccination if they so choose, Perruzza is waiting for further guidance from the city on whether customers or employees will have to mask.

Doug Schantz, the owner of Nellie’s Sports Bar, is “cautiously optimistic” about reopening and “thrilled” with the idea of easing capacity restrictions, but wary of additional barriers that the bar may face when it reopens — or the city being forced back into tougher restrictions.

“There are five million people in the D.C. metropolitan area,” says Schantz. “I think there are 10 percent of them who are ready to go back to anything and everything. Ten percent will probably not go out for yet another year. And the other 80 percent will take their time and pick and choose where they’d like to go.”

Schantz adds that while the restaurant portion of Nellie’s would be allowed to open on May 21, there may be follow-up announcements from the city establishing certain parameters or restrictions.

“We have a restaurant license. We also have a bar tavern license. So nothing applies to the bar tavern until June 11. It’s not clear if people can stand up and order from the bar, for example. To me, opening a full restaurant means that you can now have all your tables closer together and you open up 100 percent. But I’m making that up. I don’t know what it is. It’s not defined. We need further information from the mayor.”

Schantz says customers seem thrilled and are already sending emails and voicemails asking when they can make reservations for parties or drag brunches, and speculating when happy hours and sports league gatherings can resume. “Nellie’s will be ready to go,” he says. “We will always be ready for whatever it is we are able to do.”

Nellie’s — Photo: Doug Rule

Ed Bailey, the co-owner of Number Nine and Trade, had a “sense of relief” that the phase-out of existing restrictions was slow and deliberate, as opposed to a free-for-all approach that might lead to a spike in infections and prompt the D.C. government to reimpose restrictions.

“It’s not completely clear, but we get the basic gist of it,” says Bailey. “A little more capacity on May 21. And then we’re just open, open, open, on June 11. It’s exciting but also daunting. There’s a number of challenges involved in flipping the business into what people expect it to be from what we have been forced to be for the last 14, 15 months…. I anticipate it being a little bit complicated to ramp up to being able to operate fully, but I’m confident we will be able to figure it out, as we have figured out all the other challenges of the last 18 months.”

Like Schantz, Bailey believes some patrons will come back immediately once restrictions are lifted, while others will be more cautious and see how successful the lack of restrictions will be. Still others will be more discerning about which times they frequent certain establishments, simply out of caution.

“[The pandemic] has made us realize that some of the things we’ve done forever we’ve taken for granted, and we realize that there are some potential health hazards associated with being in small spaces with a whole bunch of people,” he says. “I think we should all be pretty proud living in D.C. While some feel reopening has been handled too conservatively, it certainly feels like we made it through without it being as bad as it could have been, and as it has been in other places.”

Shi-Queeta-Lee performs at Trade in 2019 — Photo: Ward Morrison

Bailey thinks “people are going to be joyous and want to come and celebrate…. I mean, who would blame them, after everything we’ve seen and lived through?… It may not be overwhelmingly packed everywhere as we start. But it will get there as more and more people feel confident.”

Bailey expects the first weekend when bars are reopened at full capacity will be extremely busy, given that the date for reopening is the Friday when D.C. typically holds its Pride celebration — which may encourage out-of-towners to insert themselves into the revelry.

Despite tempering his enthusiasm, Bailey is looking forward his bars operating at full capacity, and not just for financial reasons.

“The reason I am in the business that I’m in is to feel the energy that is created when a bunch of people are in a room together, enjoying themselves, feeling good, feeling comfortable about their surroundings, enough to let loose and have the kind of unbridled fun that you don’t get a chance to have other places,” he says. “And just seeing the faces of people that are enjoying themselves, hearing the screams and the moments where we’re going to witness so many people hugging each other who haven’t seen each other in a long time. Those moments are going to be priceless. After a year of going without that, I am personally very excited to feel that energy again.”

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