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This upcoming weekend, as the District of Columbia eases COVID-19 restrictions on many public spaces, including restaurants, parks, pools, recreation centers, gyms, and places of worship, many of D.C.’s bars catering to the LGBTQ community will open at full capacity, with no restrictions, as well.
Under guidance issued by the District, restaurants and taverns will be allowed to open at 100% capacity, while bars and nightclubs will stay at 50% capacity, eventually rising to full capacity on Friday, June 11. But because many of the LGBTQ bars either have a restaurant or tavern license, they fall under an executive order issued by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser allowing them to “resume full operation with no capacity limits beyond those of their Certificates of Occupancy, no COVID-19-related time limits, and no COVID-19-related restrictions on activities.”
“This category that they have decided to allow to be a part of the conversation where they’re calling businesses bars is obviously confusing to people, because nobody has a bar license, they either have a restaurant license, a tavern license or a nightclub license,” says Ed Bailey, co-owner of Number Nine and Trade, both of which have tavern licenses and will be open as a result.
“And on top of the mayor’s order, ABRA put out their own set of guidelines as they interpret the mayor’s order, to mandate certain operational requirements for us, which include the continued effort on the part of our business to collect contact tracing information.”
Beginning this weekend, places like Number Nine and Trade will no longer impose time or capacity restrictions, and will allow patrons to stand or sit at the bar across from a bartender, both of which were prevented during the height of the pandemic. Establishments with tavern licenses will still be required to offer a food item with any “to-go” orders — one of the few remnants, along with the collection of contact tracing information, of the previous restrictions.
Many bars will be relying on the “honor system” in terms of mask-wearing. Those who are not fully vaccinated are asked to continue wearing masks inside, but bouncers will not be checking vaccination cards upon entry. People who have been vaccinated will have the personal option of wearing a mask if they so choose.
Bailey notes that some bars, even if they could potentially open this weekend, may decide to do a slower rollout, or may delay opening because they were not able to keep employees on payroll during the pandemic, meaning they’ll have to build up their staff to be able to meet customers’ needs.
“There’s going to be a wide spectrum of the way people are approaching this. There are people who will [open] this weekend. There’s going to be people who do it on Monday, just to get ready for [next] weekend. There’s going to be people who wait until June 11,” says Bailey. “My impression in the gay community that it looks like people are going to be opening this weekend. That’s what it feels like.”
Kelly Laczko, manager of the Duplex Diner, says she’s seen signs of enthusiasm among customers about the possibility of reopening ever since Mayor Muriel Bowser issued guidance earlier this week relaxing the district’s mask-wearing guidelines. The order says that fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear a mask outdoors or inside places where it’s not required.
“We kind of started on Wednesday, but you see a lot of hesitancy and people not being sure what they should be doing. But once they realize they don’t have to wear a mask, I’ve seen a lot of relief and happiness, and everyone seems kind of elated,” says Laczko. “There’s a good vibe in the air. For the past two weekends, there’s actually been that same vibe. It feels like we could be getting back to normal. I know myself, I’ve been practicing for the past couple of days with no mask on and it’s starting to feel more normal.”
Laczko is critical of the way the District handled the reopening in terms of explaining it, noting that people were confused about which establishments would have to be at 50% capacity and which could be at full capacity starting May 21.
“The rollout was the worst thing [the mayor has] done. It is literally horrible. And everything was so vague. And these complaints were from people who know was a restaurant license and a tavern license are, and it was still confusing,” she says of the misinformation that she’s heard people in the industry repeat. “We went from 25% capacity, which is 18 people at this place, to literally 80 people back,” says Laczko.
“I just think the problem was the city kept using that June 11 date, so it gave all of us this idea in our head that we would need to be ready for around Pride,” she adds. “I was under the impression we were going to go as far as the capacity, but continue with the social distancing and masks. So no one was expecting to have that all taken away all at once.”
That said, as more people learn the correct information about reopening and the loosening of restrictions, Laczko expects them to begin frequenting their favorite establishments more often.
“I definitely think there’s excitement. In my opinion, not everybody knows about it yet completely. So I do think people who know will come out,” she adds. “But I think the rally overwhelming thing is going to be Pride. I have a feeling that week is going to be nuts. Right now, though, it could be nuts for all of us starting tonight. I think we just we don’t know. But it’s definitely a very good vibe and atmosphere and everybody seems very hopeful and excited. I have not really caught wind of anyone who is very uncomfortable, and, as staff, if a table was uncomfortable, we would gladly put up our masks up.”
Justin Parker, the co-owner of The Dirty Goose on U Street, says there’s a sense of anticipation in the air as the bar prepares to open.
“Everyone’s been kind of anxiously awaiting this for a long time,” he says, noting that he and his staff were nervous about the initial guidance and whether taverns were going to be allowed to open at full capacity, just as restaurants are. “But I’d say people are pretty excited.”
Brandon Bayton, the director of development at Wunder Garten in Northeast D.C., says the sense of excitement among potential customers is palpable, but people also have mixed feelings and legitimate concerns about safety. He expects some people to take a “wait-and-see” approach before venturing back to bars, especially given that there isn’t a surefire way to ensure that people are masking if they’re unvaccinated.
“If 2020 taught us anything, you have to sort of maneuver the honor system very carefully,” he says. “There are some people out there who just don’t want to get vaccinated. And you factor in that the card that I personally carry around is a paper card with signatures, so there’s really nothing official about it. It’s not like your I.D., where you have a hologram built into it or the official state seal, and it’s not easily duplicated or replicated. And I think that’s going to cause hesitancy with people with regards to operating on the honor system.”
In addition to requiring their staff to wear masks as a precaution, Bayton says one of the assets for Wunder Garten is that, as a completely outdoor space, there’s enough room where patrons can stretch out and feel like they’re socially distancing without much concern.
“From a personal perspective, I have been out and about. I’m also in that immunocompromised group, and I have yet to feel unsafe,” he says, praising the bars for handling the COVID-related restrictions as well as they can. “In some cases the staff have even gone to extra lengths. just to make sure I’m having a good time, but I’m also safe.”‘
That said, he also feels many people are exercising precautions, simply out of respect.
“I personally was at Wunder Garten last night with friends. And one of the things that I was observing is that people were still very, very attuned to the fact that their group was their group and weren’t really up and about and moving around,” Bayton adds. “I think another thing that has been an asset is that people coming in and sitting down at their table and ordering contactless. I never got up from the cabana I was in, just taking my phone, ordering and having drinks come to me. It meant that I didn’t have to necessarily maneuver around other people or, you know, traverse anything unless I was going to the restroom. And I even noticed that most people, when they did get up and go to the restroom, they still put their mask on. And I think that those are some elements that actually benefit us and will continue to benefit us, helping make people feel safe and comfortable.”
Bailey, of Number Nine and Trade, says the outdoor seating and “streeteries” that they’ve set up outside their establishments may give people who are unvaccinated or skittish about entering a crowded room of unmasked people an alternative that could serve as a transition before they attempt to resume their pre-pandemic behavior. He is also hopeful that additional restrictions won’t be imposed in the future, noting that many bars, restaurants, and nightclubs have been worn down from the loss of business due to the pandemic.
“The city needs to let us actually operate so we can try to earn back and make up for the debt that every single bar and restaurant took on during these restrictions,” Bailey says. “If places were able to figure out how to remain open, they’re lucky, but everyone is still really deep in it. And we’ll still see a whole bunch of places closed because now landlords are going to say, ‘Oh, you’re open? OK, start giving me rent full rent and start paying me back the rent that you didn’t pay me.’ … And the city needs to leave us alone and not try to impose other mandates.
“I’m not saying don’t help us,” he adds. “Give us a sales tax holiday a couple of weekends per year, things of that nature. But please just let us stay open for a while, without restrictions so we can plan, make decisions, and run a bar.”
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