What Can DC Do To Prevent Even More Bars and Restaurants From Closing?

Statement from Ian and Eric Hilton (The Hilton Brothers)

In news that stunned many in DC (though should not be shocking if you’ve been following what’s been going or saw some tweets), Eric and Ian Hilton announced (via Laura Hayes) yesterday that U Street area spots American Ice Co., Brixton, Echo Park, El Rey, and Gibson would only remain open until October 31st, and, along with Marvin and Players Club which never reopened after closing mid-March, would close “for the foreseeable future” after that. Whether they come back in the spring will likely depend on a number of factors including any breaks landlord gives (I imagine one reason closing is because they feel they are in better negotiating strength being completely closed vs limping along), customer demand in next 6 weeks, and of course how the pandemic/treatment is going at the time.

Many on social media lamented the potential loss of these spots; others also pointed blame at Republicans in Congress vindictively shortchanging DC in the CARES Act $750 million by treating it as a territory that doesn’t pay Federal income taxes instead as state like it almost always does in funding issues. Many correctly realize that DC’s best shot at money that could help struggling hospitality and other businesses (and their underemployed and unemployed staff) is another round of funding appropriated by Congress.

But what if, which is looking increasingly likely, no more substantial federal relief is coming?  Again, as I did back in May, I urge DC to act creatively, decisively, and publicly. Mayor Bowser, her administration, and the Council of DC must think of creative solutions, make decisions quickly, and announce them to the public so businesses and the public can see that their government is doing something, anything to prevent DC from becoming devoid of the places that make it an energetic place to live, as well as provide some sort of hope to businesses to weather this terrible times.

As a starting point, here are some of my ideas that I hope the DC Government can explore.

1. Figure Out if There is Any Way to Find More Funds to Support Struggling Bars and Restaurants, and Explain to Public If/Why There Isn’t.

Many say DC needs to provide more funding to these struggling bars and restaurants to survive. However, the budget for Fiscal Year 2021 (starting October 1st) has already been sent to Congress and it will become law. DC also faces reduced tax revenue (in part due to struggling bars and restaurants). Unlike the Federal government, DC has no real legal ability to deficit spend (i.e., spend money it doesn’t have) and faces a real risk of being taken over by a Federal control board (like it did in the 90s) if it does.

But the Mayor, her administration, and council members (and the local media to be honest) have completely failed to explain to the public either 1) why there is no additional funding possible or 2) it would be impossible (if true) to now change the budget for the upcoming fiscal year to provide additional relief.

In the meantime, DC should continue to use its regulatory flexibility to not collect and charge fees (like late fees) that aren’t connected to any increased costs or wouldn’t have been incurred without the pandemic

2. Continue to Create Additional Outdoor Space for Bars and Restaurants.

People will continue to feel much more comfortable eating and drinking outdoors, even when the temperature gets cooler. Since I first proposed this back in May, there have been successes including a couple fully closed blocks in Dupont, large streateries in Georgetown, 14th Street, Adams Morgan, and Dupont (among others), and some huge failures (the 18th Street full closure lasting one weekend, an utter lack of streateries on H Street (so far just one)). Based on what I’ve heard, DC relied too heavily on some BID and Main Street organizations to wrangle businesses which contributed to delays.

DOOT has recently become more proactive in visiting businesses, but the Mayor’s office and DDOT need to continue be more aggressive and quickly open up more public space to restaurants so they can capture revenue in the next couple months before the weather gets too cold in DC to drink/eat outside (without heaters, see below though). This should include trying the 18th Street closure again and closing other streets around the city to attract diners (in a socially distant manner.

3. Facilitate Heating of Outdoor Spaces.

The average high in DC goes under 60 degrees November 12th; under 50 degrees December 7th. Although I fully expect some DC residents to bundle up eat outside in the 40s and 50s (don’t forget these are just high temperatures, when drinking/dining even in early evening when sun goes down the temperatures will be even lower) like they do in Europe, the numbers of cusotmers will surely go down drastically. Heaters (typically propane) will be high in demand.

DC (or BIDs or Main Streets) can facilitate this in a number of ways. Perhaps they can procure heaters or at least allow bulk discounts ti be available to restaurants and bars. Most importantly, DC needs to streamline DC Fire Department permits for outdoor heaters (for tents or otherwise), including regulating only what is strictly necessary for safety and waiving fees like public space fees were waived this summer. The Mayor’s office should immediately begin developing a strategy so that no one is waiting for approval (or in jeopardy of being fined for noncompliance) to get heaters.

4. Mayor Bowser Should Designate A High-Level Official In Charge of Pandemic Recovery.

Dr. Nesbitt, Director of DC Health, focuses on the health aspect of the pandemic. But other than Mayor Bowser herself, there is an explicitly publicly designated one single person who is clearly responsible for facilitating all DC government can do to help small business. It may be best for one official to be designated with helping unemployed/struggling individuals (including facilitating fixes to the unemployment process), while another would be responsible for assisting small business struggles (including hospitality) in DC. Such a person (you could call them a “czar”) would have authority to wrangle all of the different departments as well as quickly gauge feedback from small businesses and bars.

Newly confirmed Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio appears to be filling this role, and has been pretty responsive to concerns, but the public and businesses don’t generally understand the Mayor’s Cabinet and their roles so it would best to create a new temporary title/role so this is clear to all.

5. Announce What Phase 3 Would Look Like.

I don’t think moving to Phase 3 is the panacea that many feel it is. Recall that May’s ReOpenDC plan said that Phase 3 should include  some unspecified additional indoor capacity for restaurants (above 50%) on a case by case basis “consistent with physical distancing requirements and allow bars and nightclubs to open at an extremely limited capacity (10 people per 1000 square feet). Given that bars ended up opening in Phase 1 (though having to operate as restaurants) anyways, and restaurant capacity is already limited under 50% due to physical distancing requirements, the loosened restrictions would be possibly limited to 1) allowing bar seating/standing (except there have even been more concerns about bars since May) 2) no or increased group size limitation and 3) no longer requiring purchase of prepared food per table (though all indications is that this is not adhered to).

Then again, I don’t expect more people to feel comfortable dining/drinking inside than already is the case just because it becomes Phase 3, as the Mayor has noted. 

But this is based on the ReOpenDC plan which is nearly 5 months old. DC should tell businesses what they believe a Phase 3 would look like after all this experience, to manage expectations. 

It may be that without additional Federal government help, widespread closures will be inevitable, but that does not mean DC government shouldn’t stop trying to think outside the box and proactively. The future vibrancy of DC’s great neighborhoods depends on it.


2 responses to “What Can DC Do To Prevent Even More Bars and Restaurants From Closing?”

  1. […] reaction is that this more than I expected. I had argued last week that DC needs to do something, and I was hoping just for bulk purchase pricing on heaters […]

  2. […] a Twitter account that tracks bars and restaurants, suggested that D.C. fast-track approvals for heaters and other solutions like partial tents so outdoor diners can remain […]

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