How DC Can Help Keep Its Bars and Restaurants Alive – An Open Letter to Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council

Image by Mr.TinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Dear Mayor Bowser, the Mayor’s Cabinet, the DC Council, and the ReOpen DC Committees:

I don’t have to tell you that most of DC’s bars, restaurants, and nightlife establishments, all of which are critical to the vibrant walkability of DC’s great neighborhoods, are in danger of going dark permanently due to the restrictions required to slow the spread of COVID-19. DC’s Small Business Recovery Microgrants Program, the flexibilities allowing carryout and delivery of alcohol, and other support have certainly provided a measure of assistance to those who have benefited, but I’m sure you know that is not enough.

As the operator of the website Barred in DC, I have closely observed this industry over the past 7 years (13 years as a permanent resident in 3 quadrants near diverse nightlife districts), constantly communicating with owners, employees, and customers. I also served for 4 years on a committee providing recommendations on liquor licensing issues to an ANC containing many restaurants/bars in close proximity to residences.  I have witnessed first-hand the value DC’s bars and restaurants provide to our neighborhoods, and have also seen the incredible innovation and creativity by owners and their staffs over the past two months as they attempt to survive.

In light of this background, I have six recommendations for your consideration.  Given that DC is legally prevented from spending more than it takes, none of these recommendations should require much additional financial resources on DC’s part. I understand that, even if implemented, no restaurant/bar can remain viable long without landlords, banks, and insurance companies sharing the burden, and without further funds injected into the system by the Federal government, but DC needs to do its part to make those in the industry some hope.

1. Listen to the Industry Regarding When to Reopen.

It may be counter-intuitive, but it’s apparent that at least some bars/restaurants only want to open when it’s safe enough that most people will feel comfortable eating/drinking out in DC.  Ask them whether they would want to open if DC does not feel the public health experts/metrics support opening more than 50% indoor capacity (seen in many states across the country) . They may prefer to wait until closer to full occupancy is possible. There will not be unanimity, but please carefully listen to who is saying what and ensure that there is a cross-section of establishments covered when deciding when to re-open for dine-in.

2. Create Additional Outdoor Space for Bars and Restaurants.

This is a key one. As research has shown, the coronavirus is spread more easily in confined spaces. This is why several states (diverse as Virginia, Ohio, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Louisiana) have allowed outdoor dining before indoors. Customers should be expected to be hesitant to patronize indoor spaces in great numbers until effective treatment or even a vaccine is widely available.  In DC, most bars and restaurants that have access to outdoor space (sidewalk cafe, courtyard, back patio, rooftop) that provide sufficient sidewalk clearance indeed use that space already. But there are plenty of establishments who either have space for no more than a handful of tables, or don’t have sufficient sidewalk space at all to offer outdoor dining/beverage service.

I urge DDOT, DPR, and all relevant agencies to identify areas adjacent to or in the vicinity of restaurants/bars that can be closed at appropriate times for outdoor dining/drinking until a vaccine is widely available. This could include on-street metered parking spaces, space in District or privately controlled parks and plazas, and even closing lanes of streets and alleys where appropriate and safe to do so without significant police presence. Other neighboring businesses with available unused outdoor space should be encouraged and permitted to partner with restaurants/bars. These retailers may have relatively small or no cross over in hours with restaurants/bars and even when they do, the increased foot traffic to their area should outweigh any inconveniences.

For areas that have existing business improvement districts (BIDs), businesses can collaborate and reach a consensus on what makes sense for them (I know for a fact that this conversation is already happening in some neighborhoods). ANCs-who now are operating via virtual meetings-may need to fill that facilitation void in areas where no BIDs exists, and the Mayor/Council’s legislation should simply require ABRA registration (instead of placarding and protesting, similar to off-premises alcohol sales) for any additional outdoor space permitted by DDOT. Any approval for use of space by DDOT or DPR should be streamlined and expedited to focus only on the essential safety issues and ensuring that any temporary measures do not create ADA non-compliant sidewalks.

Tampa and Cincinnati have already announced plans to do this, I’m sure the authorities there would love to share their experiences and implementation strategies. Do this ASAP, as any delay means a loss of real dollars for the industry.

3. Allow Extended Summer Garden / Sidewalk Cafe Hours.

Not only should the amount of outdoor space be expanded for bar/restaurant use, l also urge that the Mayor and DC Council authorize (via ABRA registration) extended outdoor hours temporarily. In many neighborhoods in DC, the patio must close at 11p on weekdays and midnight on weekends (or even earlier) due to ANC settlement agreements. Just like the Mayor and DC Council enacted law that to authorize carryout/delivery alcohol, it would be permitted to supersede the existing limitations in settlement agreements and licenses regarding hours. I’m not suggesting the hours be extended every day, but seems that allowing extended hours on weekends (with no extension for entertainment/live music as a compromise to reduce noise) would be in the long run a minor inconvenience to allow bars/restaurants to earn more revenue to get closer to sustainability.

4. Allow Carryout/Delivery Alcohol from On-Premises Licensees Permanently.

Temporarily allowing carryout and delivery of alcohol has allowed many restaurants/bars to keep open, employing staff and providing some amount of revenue (though certainly not profit in most cases). It is time to make this law permanent. Giving bars/restaurants this flexibility can give their landlords and vendors additional confidence that they will be a long-term sustainable operation.  States with a disparate makeup such as Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana (ok this is not surprising), Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, and Pennsylvania permanently allow at least some bars/restaurants to sell alcohol to go.

It’s still not clear why it is prohibited-DC’s grocery/convenience/liquor stores that sell alcohol to go will always have the advantage of having a wider variety of beverages and usually sell in more convenient locations and hours.  If DC is worried about open containers, there are surely some mitigation and enforcement measures that can be developed; it doesn’t need to look exactly as it does right now.

5. Provide Clearer Guidelines on How to Operate in COVID-19 World.

As outlined by Washingtonian‘s Anna Spiegel, DC restaurants and bars are currently operating in a fog regarding what happens when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. DC Health does not have clear guidance on what a restaurant should do when this happens. Should they close? How long? What if the employee is front of house v. back of house? These are extremely important questions to answer when things re-open. Restaurants/bars want to operate in good faith, and DC Health providing guidance/rules to operate (although prescriptive rules usually are not desired, in this case, restaurants/bars may welcome at least a decision matrix) will allow owners and staff to focus on implementing these rules rather than trying to do their own research to figure out what to do. This will help bars/restaurants to play close to the same rules, and provide a level of reassurance to the public that public health professionals have made determinations rather than people just trying to figure it out on the Internet.

6. Determine Ways to Spread the Burden So We All Pay Our Fair Share.

Although I do not want to minimize the stress that many white-collar workers have felt (social isolation, juggling childcare/homeschool with work), it is clear that this situation has not financially impacted everyone in the same manner (or at all). I have personally suffered no financial impacts and in fact my expenses have gone down due to most things being closed. However, other people are danger of being wiped out financially or losing their homes depending on how long this goes.

DC is hampered in its ability to provide financial support or breaks (waived license fees, property tax abatements, additional grants, etc.) because it is legally constrained not to spend money it does not have. As a result, it’s important for policymakers to figure out ways to increase revenues.

This may include higher income tax rates and/or additional income tax brackets (currently there is an extremely broad $60,000-$350,000 income bracket in DC, and the next bracket pays only marginal rate of 0.25% more up to $1 million). The DC Policy Center and similar organizations with expertise would be better equipped in providing specifics. I know there’s always fear that rich DC residents will leave in droves, but to where? Those folks will never live down the shame from their rich friends who live in the Upper East Side or Greenwich Village in NYC if they move to Great Falls or Potomac.

I understand this would not be popular-so it would be best to appeal to either the shared sense of responsibility, or if that is not convincing, to explain that, without increased revenues, more establishments will disappear, our neighborhoods would lose much of their vitality, and it would be less enjoyable to live here.

All of these ideas may seem challenging and are certainly a big change from the status quo, but I would not suggest them if I did not feel they were realistic or feasible. DC residents have limited opportunities to participate in the national political process, so we are counting on you to help save our restaurants and bars. 

Submitted for your consideration,

Barred in DC
barredindc@gmail.com

5 thoughts on “How DC Can Help Keep Its Bars and Restaurants Alive – An Open Letter to Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council

  1. Jared Ringel

    Raman,

    Thank you so much for this letter and all you are doing for DC restaurants and bars. These ideas are unreal. The outdoor seating including sidewalks and potential street metered parking areas could be enough to keep us going until dine in happens again! Arthur and I really appreciate your efforts!

    Jared Ringel
    DC Harvest

    Reply
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