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Out In The Cold: D.C. Restaurants Weather Winter Of Omicron As Mandate Takes Effect

Peaks and valleys are nothing new in the restaurant business, but even by the pandemic's standards, January has presented D.C. eateries with a new collection of challenges.

A new vaccine mandate for indoor dining went into effect on Saturday as the city's omicron wave, which spiked Covid-19 cases in D.C. faster than anywhere else in the country, may be peaking. The area has also gotten more snow this month than in the previous two years combined, and, oh, yeah, it's Restaurant Week.

The outdoor patio at St. Vincent Wine on Georgia Avenue NW.

But little of that fazes Peyton Sherwood, owner of St. Vincent Wine and Midlands Beer Garden in Park View, who said the industry is good at "rolling with the punches." Instead, he has been shocked by the effort it takes to keep the 200-person capacity backyard in St. Vincent warm and ready for customers.

“I buy more propane now than I ever had in my entire life, and I've been in the restaurant industry in D.C. for almost 30 years,” Sherwood said.

As the clock ticked down on a vaccine mandate for indoor dining, some businesses were wary that customers would be uncooperative or stay home rather than show their proof of vaccination.

But Sherwood said the D.C. locals he serves have been friendly and nonplussed by the new rules.

"Honestly, our customers, 99.9% of them have no problem with it," Sherwood said. "The only problem they have is finding it in their phone."

Several restaurant operators who spoke with Bisnow said the vaccine mandate was an encouraging sign for customers and workers alike that indoor dining is safe. They hope the mandate and other local efforts will be enough to keep afloat an industry that is crying out for federal relief, as the unexpected impact of the omicron variant of the coronavirus once again pushes sales below their pre-pandemic levels.

A bartender pours beer at Clyde's of Georgetown. Staff is now also responsible for checking vaccination status.

Nothing compares to the total shutdown of March 2020, but the restaurant business in D.C. has suffered since omicron first appeared during an already-tough holiday season.

City-level data from OpenTable shows that restaurant bookings in D.C. are about half of what they were pre-pandemic. And national survey data released Wednesday from the Independent Restaurant Coalition found that 80% of respondents had to alter their operating hours during the surge caused by the omicron variant. 

More ominously, the industry group reported 80% of businesses that didn't receive federal grant money through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund are in danger of closing permanently without replenishing the fund.

For some restaurants, it is already too late. Burmese restaurant Thamee made headlines this week when its founders announced the H Street establishment will close permanently on Jan. 23.

Thamee co-owners chef Jocelyn Law-Yone and Eric Shu-Pao Wang.

In response to emailed questions from Bisnow, Thamee co-founder Eric Shu-Pao Wang said that the restaurant saw sales crater when omicron hit, much like it did in March 2020 when the pandemic began.

"December and January are traditionally slow times for the restaurant industry, and the math no longer made sense for us to continue operation and be sustainable as a business," Wang wrote in an email.

Wang said he feels confident the vaccine mandate will be an overall positive for restaurants, encouraging more customers to dine in and spend more. But he anticipated that absent additional investment from the local or federal government, other restaurants will follow.

"I know that there are restaurants out there that will not survive through the winter without some sort of cash injection. I know we didn't," Wang wrote.

Other restaurants have leaned on the delivery and takeout business to stay afloat. HalfSmoke, which currently operates in Shaw and plans to open a location in Ward 8, has seen sales remain strong, thanks in part to takeout services, founder Andre McCain told Bisnow

The D.C. native said he has been concerned about his staff's ability to enforce the new mandate but has yet to encounter any serious problems. In fact, the biggest impact the pandemic has had on staff is their ability to interview, McCain said.

"We’re starting to see an uptick in applications, which is consistent with the historical season trend when colleges are coming back," McCain said. "We’re also finding it hard to even interview these people as of late because they’ve gotten Covid or been exposed and can’t come in."

Those staffing concerns are an even greater concern for Clyde's Restaurant Group, which operates two restaurants in D.C.

Clyde's President John McDonnell said the group amassed a stockpile of 600 tests in case the new federal government mandate requiring staff in businesses with over 100 employees to get vaccinated or face regular testing went through.

The Supreme Court ultimately struck down the mandate, and McDonnell said 91% of his roughly 1,500 employees are vaccinated. He said it even seems like staff are going out less after work, positing younger employees are grasping the serious infectiousness of this latest wave.

Still, he remains concerned that with Covid-19 test availability spotty, healthy workers could be stuck unable to work because they can’t show negative results.

“If all of a sudden you lose those workers because they couldn’t find a test anywhere, that’s a problem,” McDonnell said.

Clyde’s isn’t the only group with labor concerns either. The IRC survey showed that 49% of restaurants that didn't receive RRF funds were forced to lay off staff because of the omicron surge, compared to 33% of restaurants who did receive funding.

Kathy Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, said it was time for government officials to kick in additional support. She said local officials worked to make sure D.C.'s Restaurant Bridge Fund would “get dollars out the door as soon as possible” to restaurants, but it wouldn’t be enough to match the scale of the pandemic’s effects.

“This is, again, exactly what it is called: It is a bridge fund to get our folks from one destination point to another. It does not make up for what is so needed through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund,” Hollinger said. “So many people are left behind, and it’s devastating.”

Outdoor dining, like the setup at Bluejacket at The Yards, has expanded in Washington, D.C.

Hollinger said restaurants are seeing sales that are about 65% to 70% of pre-pandemic levels. She said some restaurants will face “tough decisions” in the weeks and months to come if they can’t find a way to keep already-thinned workforces paid.

When the omicron wave will subside remains unclear, but Hollinger said she hoped that by spring, more money would be flowing and customers would begin to return. She said D.C.'s Restaurant Week, which began Monday, would provide a much-needed infusion of business for the roughly 225 businesses participating.

And some restaurateurs are already looking ahead. Chris Svetlik, owner of Republic Cantina in Truxton Circle, said he has learned to just trust the public health guidance and roll with changes as they come.

"That is a nerve-wracking part of this, is just asking yourself, 'Should indoor dining still be going on when you’re in a spike?'" Svetlik said. "There’s something that feels a little uneasy about folks dining in right now, but maybe that’s just the nature of Covid two years in."

Svetlik, along with Sloppy Mama's chef Joe Neuman, are planning a new bar at 1432 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Svetlik said the pandemic has altered several behind-the-scenes considerations when planning a space in a mid- or post-pandemic world, like windows that swing open and banquettes that accommodate flexible table spacing.

But he is still confident that he can find a way to make a new restaurant work.

"The past two years with Cantina have been a good reminder how people just love restaurants," Svetlik said. "That, I think, gives a little bit of confidence that if you're doing something honest that people connect with, even if we go into another horrific wave or next year there's Covid-22 or whatever it is, that I think it's in some ways a pretty robust industry."