As Northern Virginia enters the first phase of a gradual lifting of restrictions, business owners are weighing whether it’s worth it to reopen under rules that still dramatically limit how many customers they can serve.
The first phase of Gov.Ralph Northam’s “Forward Virginia” reopening allows restaurants, breweries, wineries and other businesses to begin serving customers again only outside, only at half their normal capacity, and only with six-foot separation between parties enforced, among other rules. That means many businesses with limited outdoor seating can only serve a handful of customers—and other businesses, none at all.
Old Ox Brewery is among those businesses that decided, even under the new rules, it’s worth it. The brewery’s Middleburg location will opened today at noon, with the Ashburn location opening next Friday, June 5. They’ve also taken precautions: tables have been arranged to be six feet apart, no furniture moving is allowed, and kids and pets are allowed in only if they stay at the table the whole time. Members of brewery’s mug club, Order of the Ox, also may not use their mugs, since all beers are being served in disposable plastic cups.
President and CEO Chris Burns said the decision was made based on the amount of outdoor seating they have in Middleburg—and they’re working to expand outdoor seating at their Ashburn location.
“In Ashburn we received approval from our condo association yesterday to expand into the parking lot area further, so we’re still working with Virginia ABC to make sure it’s nice and legal before we open next week,” Burns said. “That’s one of the reasons that we’re delaying the Ashburn opening until next week. And we believe that with the additional seating capacity and the addition of porta-potties outside, we’ll have ample room to welcome in a reasonable number of guests.”
But, he said, reopening isn’t just about the bottom line for Old Ox.
“I’m not sure that it’s going to dramatically improve the bottom line, but we have to start somewhere,” Burns said. “And what we didn’t want to have happen is have a reopening in Phase 2 where maybe it makes more financial sense, but we’re just not prepared for the amount of people that we can welcome back at that time. This is a really good opportunity for us to hone our processes and procedures while our capacity is still relatively low so our staff doesn’t get overwhelmed with larger crowds in Phase 2.”
Bear Chase Brewing Company, which sits on about 33 acres, has also opened for business with a range of safety precautions in place.
Groups of chairs and tables are set up on the brewery’s lawn overlooking the Loudoun Valley, with circles painted on the lawn around each. Those circles are at least 15 feet apart, said General Manager Chris Suarez, with groups of up to 10 people permitted in each, and where people can feel safe relaxing with their friends. The brewery has also set up a more serving stations an a dozen portable toilets to avoid any points of congestion, and hired more staff who walk the brewery’s grounds constantly sanitizing surfaces.
But even for venues with expansive outdoor space, today may not be the time to reopen. Tarara Winery, host of the Tarara Summer Concert Series and known for its expansive outdoor space, will continue serving carry-out orders only.
“After careful consideration of our infrastructure and our staff for the vast amount of grounds without the proper structure and facilities we feel we cannot safely yet open,” the winery posted on Facebook. “Access to our restrooms and our hospitality area is just not feasible for asolely outdoor operation and we just don’t have the comfort level that we will be able to give you the service you deserve and keep you and our staff safe.”
General Manager Jordan Harris said the decision not to open up again was attributable to a number of factors, including maintaining social distancing around the restroom facilities, which are inside.
“There was a little bit of nerves on a couple hundred people coming up, and those couple hundred people are going to be trying to use those bathrooms.”
He also said it would be difficult to keep an eye on all of the winery’s outdoor spaces to make sure the rules are being followed—and he was worried about his employees, and not just whether they’d pick up a virus.
“For a lot of people, working in wineries is kind of their weekend job, so a lot of them, they’ve also lost their weekday job,” Harris said. “We don’t want them to compromise their unemployment or anything like that because they’re working a day for us.”
As to when it will be time to reopen: “I have no idea how to answer that.”
“It’s a shame that we’re not going to be open for it, because I think that there’s going to be pretty good bump for those that are open,” he said.
Local governments have begun to step in, loosening their own rules to help the service industry open back up. The Leesburg Town Council this week voted to allow restaurants to apply for a free permit to temporarily expand their outdoor dining into sidewalks and parking lots, increasing the number of customers they would be able to serve.
Meanwhile, after a request from the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce, the county government has opened up free applications for temporary permits to expand seating into parking lots, which are necessary for approval from the state Alcoholic Beverages Commission. The Chamber has also asked the county to allow temporary signs to attract and direct customers.
“For the past 11 weeks, many Loudoun County businesses and their employees have paid the greatest price for the restrictions imposed to help halt the spread of COVID-19,” stated Chamber President and CEO Tony Howard. “Now, as these businesses begin to enter the first Phase of reopening, they need the county’s help to reverse the economic damage done by this pandemic.”
Those permits go into effect once the county enters the first phase of reopening Friday, and expire when restrictions on indoor dining end or the Board of Supervisors rescinds the county’s Declaration of Emergency, whichever comes first. To apply, visit loudoun.gov/outdoorseating.
So far, no date has been set for the second phase of reopening, which will allow customers back indoors; Northam has said no sooner than next Friday. Northam has also said the first phase could last 2-4 weeks, and regional leaders have asked that Northern Virginia be able to enter the second phase at the same time as the rest of the state.