March 16, 2021

D.C business recovery will be slow, but vaccines and spring bring hope

In some ways, it did feel like D.C. emerged from its pandemic-induced hibernation over the…

In some ways, it did feel like D.C. emerged from its pandemic-induced hibernation over the last week, with unseasonably warm weather, the vaccine rollout underway and residents spilling out of their homes into neighborhood streets and shops. But beneath its sunny disposition, little has changed.

Restaurants were still capped at 25 percent capacity indoors, and the once-bustling streets of downtown Washington remained almost empty. The Anthem, the music venue with the encouraging sign at the Wharf, stayed shuttered. And the coronavirus daily case rate lingered well above the city’s metric of success as demand for coronavirus vaccine doses continues to outpace supply.

The palpable sense of optimism that flourished in parks and patios over the past week without material indicators of economic recovery is an early sign that the nation’s capital will have a slow and measured road to its new normal. While Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) barreled toward reopening on Friday — lifting capacity limits at restaurants and opening large indoor and outdoor venues to 50 percent capacity — D.C. leadership championed a more cautious approach.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is expected to announce modest steps toward recovery on Monday, focused on gradually reopening “societal functions” such as schools, parks and libraries, said John Falcicchio, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development and Bowser’s chief of staff.

“We want to show people that there is hope in what is to come, but we need to make sure that the variants aren’t impacting our health metrics and that the vaccine is getting out as promptly as we need it to,” he said.

City leaders warn that the District’s recovery efforts will be further stymied by its dependence on office culture and tourism. Before the pandemic, D.C.’s population swelled by 87 percent each day with people commuting into the city for work, according to Falcicchio. The DowntownDC Business Improvement District reported that in early March, its economic activity remained at 16 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

From mid-March to December 2020, visitor spending was down 71 percent, resulting in a $375 million loss in tax revenue for the District, according to Destination DC, which promotes the city to visitors.

“Our sales are still down 70 percent year-over-year — that hasn’t changed even with the warmer weather,” said Gregg ­Rozeboom, who owns plant-based restaurant Fruitive with a location in D.C.’s CityCenter. “We’ve noticed there are more people out and about in D.C., but not in our area.”

Rozeboom moved his family into his parents’ house in Michigan to save money after the pandemic wreaked havoc on his business.

Over the past week, D.C. residents and business owners continued in large part to adhere to stringent public safety guidelines regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. On Thursday afternoon at Lincoln Park, toddlers dressed in tutus wore masks while they twirled together in the sun. Friends picnicking on blankets sat feet away from one another.

“It feels more hopeful here, like maybe we’ve turned a corner or something, but even so it’s good to keep staying safe,” said Tanusree McCabe, a Capitol Hill resident who brought her 6- and 9-year-old children to read library books on a park bench.

McCabe said she will continue wearing a mask after she receives a vaccine.

“At first, keeping a distance and wearing masks was jarring. Now, it’s just a habit,” she said.

Richard Hammer, managing partner at Cantina Marina in the Wharf, said he wants to remain as vigilant as ever with coronavirus safety guidelines until his full staff is vaccinated. Half of his staff has received vaccinations through part-time jobs in health care or education. He said he instructed them to act as if nothing had changed to protect customers and the other staff who had not yet been vaccinated.

“The few months where some people but not everyone has access to the vaccine are going to be tricky,” he said. “We have to be careful not to spike the ball before the 10-yard line.”

While caution abounds in the District, small-business owners are taking steps toward reopening for the first time in months. They say they are buoyed by the promise of a fresh injection of cash from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act, which authorized $7.5 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program. Businesses are also hopeful reopening plans can be permanent with vaccine doses increasingly available.

Restaurateur Ian Hilton, who announced permanent closures of some of the city’s most beloved bars this winter, decided to reopen most, if not all, of his establishments after traveling to South Carolina and witnessing the “pent-up desire to get out” in warm weather. He expects to fully open the American Ice Company in Shaw by the end of March with Brixton shortly after. Echo Park reopened earlier this month.

“The familiar faces, I am really looking forward to seeing them again,” Hilton said.

Bill Duggan, who owns blues bar Madam’s Organ, said he moved up his projected reopening date from late summer to late May because of the growing number of vaccine appointments in the District. Last week, he sent out his first round of text messages to local artists checking to see whether they’d be available to play in the spring.

“I hope this is all for real, this feeling as we go toward spring that we are looking at a renewal,” he said.

Solly’s U Street Tavern, an 11th Street NW staple, is opening its patio on Monday for the first time since Christmas. Its owner, John Solomon, purchased new picnic tables to replace the ones that almost snapped from seating customers throughout the cold and wet fall.

On Thursday, he mopped up a film of dust that had gathered behind the bar over the last months. Wilted bags of potato chips hung over head.

“The idea of turning a profit still isn’t there at all,” he said. “But between the weather, the vaccines and everything else, it’s giving me a feeling of hope and positivity I haven’t felt in months.”