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Loudoun County Benefiting From Its Lack Of Density But Concerned About Rising Cases Of Coronavirus

As Loudoun County's retail market works to rebound from the coronavirus crisis, restaurants are benefiting from expanding outdoor seating into parking lots, but business owners and local leaders are concerned that a rise in cases could hurt the recovery.

The expanded outdoor seating area at The Conche Bar & Restaurant in the Village at Leesburg development.

Virginia entered Phase 3 of its reopening process July 1. This step lifted the capacity restrictions on restaurants but kept 6-feet social distancing requirements, allowed gyms and outdoor swimming pools to return to 75% capacity and allowed gatherings of up to 250 people.

Santosh Tiptur, owner of The Conche Bar & Restaurant at the Village at Leesburg development, said he saw a surge of new customers in the days after Phase 3 began, but over the last week he has seen a noticeable decline. He attributes this to public concern over rising case numbers. 

"It started off really good the first week of July and then this week we see slowly it's going away, less people feel comfortable to come out after the news going on in other states," he said. "It's trending down right now."

The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia increased for the eighth consecutive day Tuesday, the Washington Post reported. Loudoun County has the third-highest number of cases in Virginia with 4,457 as of Tuesday, a 5% increase from July 7, according to the Post

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday the rise in cases in the state is "very concerning," and he announced more aggressive measures to control the virus. These measures included ordering inspectors to make unannounced visits to restaurants and retailers and revoking licenses if they are not following the rules around wearing masks and social distancing. 

"The numbers since reopening have not been good," Loudoun County Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer said. "We were expecting a bump and knew once we started reopening there would be more cases, that was predictable."

Other states that have seen sharp increases in cases after reopening, including California and Texas, have reversed the reopening process and ordered the shutdown of bars and restaurants over the last three weeks. 

"I really hope we don't get back to stay-at-home orders, and I think we can avoid that if we're smart and encourage mask-wearing and social distancing," Rizer said. "When you drive around, you still see big groups of people congregating and not social distancing. It's not encouraging."

The One Loudoun development in Ashburn.

Retail Properties of America Vice President of Property Management Neil Burka, who manages the One Loudoun development in Ashburn, said his firm is watching the case numbers closely and hopes Virginia doesn't have to reverse its reopening process.

"It's one of those things we all have to watch and be careful of, and the important thing is we all keep doing the things that got us to where we are now," Burka said. "We're encouraging our merchants to follow the guidelines and do the right things so we don't go backwards like other parts of the country have, so with any luck will stay where we are, stay level and wait until a vaccine comes out."

As owners look to keep their businesses alive through the pandemic while keeping customers safe, many have found people are more comfortable dining outside or picking up takeout orders than sitting indoors. 

Because Loudoun County's retail properties have more surface parking than some of the region's higher-density urban areas, they have been able to devote more space to outdoor seating and pickup spaces.  

RPAI has expanded outdoor seating at the One Loudoun development and has seen customers gravitate more toward those areas than the indoor dining. 

"People were hungry to get back out and we're seeing great success on our outdoor seating," Burka said. "Indoor dining is a mix ... It's going well, but not near as popular at the outdoor at this point."

An outdoor seating area at the One Loudoun development, photographed before the pandemic.

The design of One Loudoun as an open-air retail center with ample outdoor space made it ideal for this current environment, RPAI Vice Presideng Greg Goldberg said.

"The design of One Loudoun is open and inviting, and it ties to what's going on where customers want to be outside, "Goldberg said."The part that scares people the most is being in tight spaces and being around people and not having an open environment."

Peterson Cos. President of Retail Paul Weinschenk, whose firm is working on multiple retail developments in Loudoun County, said having open-air shopping centers has been a major benefit during the pandemic. 

"I wake up every morning, and as challenging as things have been, I'm thrilled we're an open-air company as opposed to a traditional mall owner," Weinschenk said. 

Loudoun County created a process to allow restaurants to expand their outdoor seating, and Rizer said it has been widely used by businesses. 

"That increased flexibility is something we will continue to do as we want to reduce the number of barriers to success these businesses have," Rizer said. "We're doing things like letting them use sidewalks or blocking off parking spots or reducing parking numbers so they have room do this. There is a lot of that."

The Conche and other restaurants at Rappaport's Village at Leesburg property have expanded their outdoor seating into parking spaces, and Tiptur said this has been a big help. 

"We are blessed because we have a lot of parking spaces, we have four parking lots and people don't just have to depend on parking on the street," Tiptur said. "The landlord sees that, and it's safer for everybody, so I think the permission to use the parking spaces has been very helpful."

Retail owners are also seeing customers favor curbside pickup options, and some developers are thinking about ways to facilitate takeout service as they design new properties. 

An aerial rendering of Peterson Cos.' Compass Creek retail development in Leesburg.

Peterson Cos. is building new retail at its Compass Creek development, and Weinschenk said the ability to offer drive-thru and pickup spaces has been attractive to tenants.

"It's changing the way we're thinking about the pickup of food and beverage," Weinschenk said. "The ability to do drive-thru at Compass Creek has been particularly helpful in conversations with a variety of food and beverage tenants."

The amount of land available at Loudoun County properties compared to denser parts of the region makes it particularly well-suited for adding dedicated drive-thru and takeout spaces, Weinschenk said. He said suburban jurisdictions are having discussions about ways to allow more food and beverage retailers to offer drive-thru service. 

"The District, Arlington and Alexandria, those areas are denser and so there's not as much of a propensity to have free-standing food and beverage buildings to begin with, so that conversation is going to occur less often," he said. "But in more suburban locations, it will be a conversation that industry and government will clearly need to have."

Even with expanded outdoor seating and takeout offerings, restaurants have still not recovered to the level of sales they were bringing in before the pandemic. 

Tiptur said The Conche's sales are now around 50% of pre-crisis levels, but he had hoped to be around 70% this month. 

"We are struggling," he said. "If this continues, it's going to get worse, and it's going to be hard for us."

Rizer said he sees restaurant sales in the county ranging from around 20% to 60%, depending on how well the businesses have pivoted to outdoor dining and takeout service.

"Certainly if you're not making adjustments on your side as a business, your numbers are going to be closer to 20% than 60%," Rizer said.

He said Loudoun County is seeing permanent restaurant closures like many jurisdictions, but they have not been as frequent as he expected. Loudoun County has provided grants to over 1,000 businesses totaling $7M, and its businesses have also benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program, but Rizer said the federal government needs to provide more relief.

"Unless PPP gets reinitiated or more benefits are coming, I think we'll see another surge of businesses that could close," Rizer said. "We've definitely seen some closures, but it hasn't been as many as I was worried about early on."