As the coronavirus pandemic brings activity in the region to a veritable standstill, the hospitality industry in Falls Church and beyond is being hit especially hard with the public ramping up its social distancing effort and authorities implementing new restrictions on restaurant and bar service in an effort the prevent the spread of COVID-19.
After hedging on the issue earlier in the week, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam finally issued an order Tuesday night prohibiting the gathering of more than 10 customers in the state’s restaurants and bars. This followed Monday’s order by Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser shutting down all on-site service at district establishments and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s decision to close all his state’s restaurants.
The current closures and service limitations will not only have a crippling effect on the owners of the region’s small, locally-owned businesses but on the thousands of workers they employ as well.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis of the United States Department of Commerce, employee compensation for workers at restaurants and bars was $309 billion in 2018, far surpassing any other industry expected to be impacted by the coronavirus. On Wednesday, the National Restaurant Association said forecasts show the industry will sustain at least $225 billion in losses and will be forced to eliminate a minimum of 5 – 7 million jobs over the next three months.
Online reservation website Open Table reports Washington, D.C. restaurants have seen a dramatic decline in diners compared to one year ago. According to Open Table data, what started as a 10 percent dip in diners last Monday, steadily increased to a 55 percent decrease, year-over-year, on Sunday. Several Falls Church restaurants told the News-Press they’ve seen similar significant declines — as much as 70 percent — in business over the past week. And this was all before the orders to essentially shut down dine-in service on Tuesday.
In advance of Northam’s declaration, Little City restaurants were already busy enacting new protocols and altering service in response to the novel coronavirus, with many converting to take-out and delivery operations in an effort to limit the gathering at their respective establishments. At least nine Falls Church restaurants reported they would close indefinitely.
News of the changes started trickling out at the beginning of the week with Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken, Taco Bamba and Liberty Barbecue all announcing Monday they would shift to delivery and takeout service only, while Audacious Aleworks, Spacebar, Northside Social and Dominion Wine and Beer converted to carryout only. Starbucks, with three City locations, said Sunday it was instituting a to-go model for all of its stores nationwide.
On the eve of its biggest night of the year, Ireland’s Four Provinces announced it would postpone its much-anticipated St. Patrick’s Day celebration on Tuesday and shutter for at least the rest of the week.
“We have made the decision to postpone the 4Ps’ St. Patrick’s Day celebration to a time when it can be more heartily enjoyed,” the restaurant posted on Facebook. “While we will be closed on Tuesday, March 17th, we will continue to modify our offerings and practices to the changing recommendations surrounding public health.”
Last Thursday, the News-Press suspended its annual Falls Church Restaurant Week promotion scheduled to begin this Monday and on Sunday, longtime Falls Church establishment Clare & Don’s Beach Shack announced it would shutter until at least next month.
“It was rough,” says David Tax, who, along with his sister Rebecca, owns and runs the popular restaurant and bar in addition to Lazy Mike’s Delicatessen. “The kitchen staff and my sister were in tears.”
But Tax tells the News-Press he knows it’s the right thing to do.
His top priority during this time, he says, is the well-being of his employees. “All gift card sales we make right now, they’re going directly to paying our staff,” says Tax. Just last weekend, the restaurants were set up with a new on-line system to purchase the cards.
“We told our staff to reach out if they need to,” he says. “We’re not going to let anybody starve.”
The Taxes are keeping their deli, Lazy Mike’s, open for the time being, providing delivery and takeout via its side service window. Tax says many of his customers are senior citizens and he’s told them to reach out via the restaurants’ Facebook pages or by cell phone (both he and his sister have given out their personal numbers to regulars) and told them to text or call if they need food.
Despite the disruption and damage it will cause his businesses, Tax said they’re in a pretty decent position, all things considered. “This isn’t a high time of the season, so if we can get this behind us, [we’ll be OK.]” He’s more concerned, he says, about some of the City’s other restaurants like Clare & Don’s next-door neighbor, the nascent Thompson Italian.
Opening to rave reviews and much fanfare last August, the locally-and-family-owned restaurant made the decision to shut down Monday until at least April. Owner Katherine Thompson told the News-Press they were going to launch brunch next month, but now those plans are on hold.
“Supporting local businesses is beyond important during times like these. We all have employees and families that depend on [the] local economy,” Thompson says. “Whatever the community can do, it is beyond appreciated.”
The Falls Church Chamber of Commerce has offered several ways for residents to support restaurants during the crisis. Executive Director Sally Cole told the News-Press ordering takeout or delivery, purchasing gift cards and, if people do frequent a restaurant, using credit cards or electronic payments to prevent the potential spread of the virus can help during this time. She also encourages people to like and share restaurants’ messages on social media.
Though gift card purchases can help with funds in the short run, they’re not a perfect solution and could pose a problem for restaurants down the line.
“While [gift card sales] can alleviate the immediate cash flow issue, it can have lasting effects if many people then try to redeem at similar times,” Café Kindred’s Jen Demetrio told the News-Press.
Demetrio, who’s seen her coffee shop’s business decline by more than 50 percent over the past two weeks, says people can help restaurants by visiting frequently while there are no quarantines or lock-downs in effect.
“Continuing to eat out helps the restaurants stay afloat, and helps to keep a healthy local economy, ” she told the News-Press. In an Instagram post Wednesday, the cafe wrote “We’ll stay open for as long as we can to serve our community and staff.”
Falls Church Distillers owner Michael Paluzzi says he saw a 60 percent decrease in business on Saturday which only worsened the next day. In response, the distillery is closed this week through at least Sunday. “We are watching it closely week to week and [I] am ever mindful of our employees’ and patrons’ health,” Paluzzi told the News-Press.
Asked about how the public can help local restaurants and bars in the meantime, Paluzzi says “When this is over, come on out!”
The Vietnamese shopping center Eden Center, which is home to more than 30 restaurants, has seen mixed consequences as a result of the outbreak, according to Graham Eddy, vice president of the center’s property management company.
“Our two well-stocked supermarkets are doing extremely well,” he wrote the News-Press in an email. “Eden Supermarket has plenty of Vietnamese specialties and Good Fortune continues to stock fresh fish and produce.” He continued, “On the other hand, we expect our other family-owned shops to have a slow period.”
In an email to City officials, Eden Center management said it’s working with DoorDash on delivery for its restaurants and would reimburse shops for delivery fees they may incur.
Jeff Bulman, owner and operator of The Original Pancake House on Lee Highway, had his two Maryland restaurants shuttered Monday due to the state’s mandate. He said he’ll keep his Falls Church location, which he reports has seen a dramatic decline in business during the past week, open as long as Virginia allows.
“If people are comfortable, I would hope they would come out for a meal,” he told the News-Press in an email.
DC Steakholders’ Lilly Kaur and her husband were planning to celebrate their restaurant’s one-year anniversary next month but now, after business dropped nearly 70 percent in the last week, they’re not sure they’re going to make it.
“We hope things will get better soon,” Kaur told the News-Press. “Or we might have to close for good.”
The News-Press has an updated list with the operating status of Falls Church area restaurants, along with information on purchasing their respective gift cards, at fcnp.com/covid19fcrestaurantstatus.