D.C. restaurants are in a tough predicament as they prepare for winter in midst of a pandemic, despite help from the city to "winterize" outdoor dining areas.
Alberto, a server at a restaurant in Shaw, is already preparing for winter.
Talking on the phone in between shifts, he worries about what will happen to his job when brisk fall evenings turn into bitter cold winter nights (He declined to share his last name or the name of the restaurant where he works to protect his privacy).
For one, he reasons that fewer people will dine at restaurants. Many people are still not comfortable eating indoors despite D.C.'s Phase 2 allowing it. Plus, even with the city offering businesses $6,000 to "winterize" their outdoor space, the cold may be too much for people.
"People will not be too happy to eat outdoors," he says. "People will prefer to eat at home."
There's also his and his fellow employees' safety. Alberto is worried that by adding heaters, coverings, tents and furniture to a patio or a streatery, it's essentially turning the outdoors — where it's generally agreed that the virus has a lower risk of spreading — into the indoors.
"If there's a tent, it's not really outdoor space anymore," he says. "If everyone is covered by that tent, it's an indoor space."
D.C. restaurants are in a tough predicament as they prepare for winter in midst of a pandemic. The city began allowing indoor dining in June, but many customers remain uncomfortable eating indoors, according to a number of restaurant workers and owners that spoke to DCist/WAMU. And there seems to be no indication that this mindset will change as the weather grows colder.
Patrick Fort, host of WAMU's food podcast Dish City, addressed his own misgivings about dining out — especially indoors — in a recent episode. "Dining out feels so important to me right now, but at the same time, I find myself being too stressed out to actually go do it," Fort said in the episode.
Some restaurant owners, like Alisha Edmonson of Songbyrd Cafe in Adams Morgan, say they're not comfortable offering indoor dining either, and are sticking to tables outside for now. "D.C. [diners] seem to be inclined on the precaution side," Edmonson says. "Everyone is asking for outdoors."
Yet even as the city offers help, these same local establishments and workers have concerns about the effectiveness and cost of outdoor dining spaces in the winter.
"Would you want to go and drink outside when it's 23 degrees out and sit next to a space heater? Not necessarily," says Paul Vivari, owner of Showtime Bar in Bloomingdale.
This has led some to predict a mass extinction event for D.C. restaurants, on top of the number of popular establishments that have already closed in recent weeks.
"There's been quite a bit of chatter [about] post-December and kind of an apocalyptic wave of closures," says Zac Hoffman, executive president for the worker-driven advocacy group DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance. "We're going to have to buckle down and get ready for kind of a massive economic displacement of workers and capital and, maybe, a slight collapse of the entire local economy. Not to be an alarmist."
Paul Vivari/Showtime Bar
Showtime Bar in Bloomingdale will be "winterizing" their outdoor space for the coming cold months.
Paul Vivari/Showtime Bar
The city's assistance is coming in the form of the $4 million Streatery Winter Ready Grant Program. The money is coming from the about $500 million that was provided to the District in the CARES Act, officials say. Approved restaurants will receive $6,000 each, an amount based on the resources available, consultation with the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, and the number of currently permitted streateries — about 594 — says John Falcicchio, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
The money is expected to go to the renting or purchasing of tents, heaters, propane, lighting, furniture and signage. "We know that this won't necessarily cover all the costs for businesses to winterize, but we wanted to have an incentive for them to do their planning," says Falcicchio.
Quick math shows that there is enough money for about 660 businesses to receive grants — Falcicchio says the city expects this grant opportunity will encourage a few more establishments to open outdoor spaces.
Some restaurateurs have already praised the grant.
Nina Gilchrist opened Provost on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast last June. It was a fulfillment of a nearly two-decade-old dream of hers to own a restaurant in the neighborhood she grew up in. After shutting down in March, she reopened in June and the outdoor rooftop has provided her steady revenue.
Gilchrist says customers have been calling her about plans for the winter, which has encouraged her to apply for the grant. She plans on using the money on electric heaters.
"I feel like a lot of our business comes from our local community that really is showing a lot of support," Gilchrist says. "And with our local government, it only helps to give me hope and empowerment."
Not everyone is so optimistic.
Up until March, Nikki Del Casale was a bartender at Union Pub in Northeast near Union Station. However, when the city directed restaurants and bars to close on March 16, Del Casale was laid off. When the restaurant reopened in early summer, she didn't return to work. Her partner is at high risk for getting very sick from COVID-19, she says, and they didn't want to chance it.
Her initial plan was to start working again in the restaurant industry in September or October, but that's no longer the case due to cases continuing to tick up and a vaccine that will unlikely be available for most until 2021. Indoor dining worries her, particularly in the light of August's reveal that an "increasing number" of people were dining out while infected with COVID-19. She also questions the city-backed plan to "winterize" outdoor spaces.
"If you are entirely enclosing an outdoor patio with a tent and heaters, that's inside dining," says Del Casale. "So why don't we just admit that we want to pretend the virus doesn't exist and open full indoor dining and save $4 million?"
According to D.C.'s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration's Phase 2 guidelines, canopies and tents may be used in outdoor spaces provided that they only have one side flap. Meaning, three flaps must be open and exposing the space to the potentially cold winter temperatures. "We think that streateries, whether it's in the spring or it's in the winter, can operate safely," says Falcicchio.
But while this may keep the outdoor streateries safer, open tents will make them colder and, potentially, less appealing to potential diners and a hazard for employees.
"I've worked at places that have had patios ... in the winter," says Sophia Miyoshi, lead organizer for the D.C. chapter of food service worker advocacy group Restaurants Opportunities Center United. Even with heat lamps, it is extremely uncomfortable, especially when it gets really, really cold. "Serving and working [can be] horrible."
There's also additional costs associated with winterizing that, for some businesses, may not make it worth it.
Aaron McGovern is co-owner of Biergarten Haus (along with two other D.C. restaurants), a German-style beer garden on H Street near Capitol Hill. Their outdoor space is open all-year around and he uses propane heaters every year. He says the cost of propane is perhaps something that other restaurants may not be anticipating.
"[Last winter] we had a $4,000-a-month propane bill. It was ridiculous," says McGovern. "That's more than most of these [businesses] pay for their rents and mortgages for some of these properties."
Edmonson of Songbyrd Cafe says that she's been having trouble even finding heaters to purchase. "We are actively going to places to find them and looking online and what we are being told is, basically, every single restaurant is trying to do the same thing," she says. "Heaters are the new hand sanitizer."
Lack of diner enthusiasm, safety concerns and the additional cost for businesses have many in the industry not feeling good about the future of the D.C. restaurant scene.
McGovern of Biergarten Haus says he's heard from 15 fellow restaurant owners over the past few months telling him they were closing up shop. "You're going to see a skeleton of restaurants in D.C. by January," he says. "And that's sad."
Miyoshi says ROC D.C. is more focused on efforts to increase and extend unemployment benefits since there's a likelihood that there will be mass unemployment in the food service industry come winter.
Hoffman foresees D.C. dining changing forever. "It's really just kind of the entire cultural collapse of the dining scene that is kind of looming over us all the time, especially with the colder weather coming."
For the moment, Alberto is saving his money since he knows it's likely his hours will be reduced when temperatures dip. He says his employers are doing the best they can to keep everyone employed and safe.
Alberto doesn't know his employers' plan for winterizing the outdoor space, but either way, he doesn't think customers want to be outside and, frankly, neither does he.
"I'm very aware that as soon as winter hits, it's going to be very cold," says Alberto. "No one wants to be outside in the winter time all that much."