2020 | Dine

Restaurateurs plead for help following indoor dining shutdown proposal

Heated tents coming to Bethesda Streetery sites

Barrel and Crow in Bethesda seen in 2015, before the pandemic. The restaurant, like many in Montgomery County, is preparing for a winter without indoor dining.

File photo

Montgomery County restaurateurs say they need help from various levels of government, as they brace for a possible winter without being allowed to have indoor customers.

County Executive Marc Elrich announced during a media briefing on Wednesday that he has proposed a shutdown on indoor dining due to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases.

The County Council is set to vote on the proposal Tuesday. If approved, it would take effect at 5 p.m. that day.

Under the order, restaurants could serve customers outdoors, as well as operate carryout and delivery.

Restaurants and bars were shut down across the state at the beginning of the pandemic in March.

Restaurants in the county reopened at 50% indoor capacity in mid-June. That number was reduced to 25% last month as cases continued to rise.

Ashish Alfred, who owns Duck Duck Goose in Bethesda and Baltimore, said the news for restaurants has been “blow after blow,” referring to both Elrich’s announcement and an order by Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott to shut down both indoor and outdoor dining.

Alfred said he understands that the science mandates that people not dine in at the moment, but restaurants need more money at all levels of government to help the restaurant industry.

“I believe the burden on our elected officials right now is immense. They’re responsible for saving the lives of the citizens that they’ve been elected to represent,” he said.

Alfred has joined restaurant and bar owners across the country in signing onto a letter online urging Congress to pass the Restaurants Act. The bill, introduced in June, would set aside $120 billion for restaurants around the country that have been hurt by the pandemic.

Alfred said that money would go a long way toward helping restaurant owners pay rent or cover other needed expenses during the pandemic.

“Restaurants are not gonna somehow band together and get local or state government to change its mind. All we can do is band together and reach out to Congress and ask Congress to pass the restaurants bill,” he said.

Alfred said that during the winter months, “no amount of heaters” will make people feel comfortable if they don’t want to sit outside. Instead, financial relief would be more helpful, he said.

“I think every and anybody that has had a hand in closing us should bear some responsibility in keeping us open,” he said.

Laura Houlihan, who owns Barrel and Crow in Bethesda, said Wednesday night that she wasn’t surprised about Elrich’s announcement. But she said people need to also take personal responsibility in not spreading the virus.

“I said from the beginning: If you have medical concerns or issues, you should stay home. I’m not saying it in a nasty way. I’m just saying, be smart about it,” she said.

Houlihan added that a ban on indoor dining isn’t a cure-all.

“I still go to a grocery store with the thousands of people that touch things. I don’t think that stopping people from going into a restaurant is gonna make the virus go away any faster,” she said.

Houlihan said the recent $10,000 grants that the county announced for restaurants aren’t enough to cover rent, payroll and other expenses.

“You’re not in a low-income area,” she said of Bethesda. “Rent and apartments and living is expensive. And we know that.”

Houlihan said she will do her best not to lay off any of her staff this winter, but it will be hard.

Terry Cullen, the general manager at Tommy Joe’s in Bethesda, said the county’s order should be more “specialized,” by tailoring dining restrictions based on the specific number of COVID-19 cases in a given ZIP code.

“Montgomery County’s one of the biggest counties in the state. And we’re getting punished by people that didn’t follow the rules in Silver Spring and Germantown,” he said.

Cullen said Tommy Joe’s is in a better situation than some due to its rooftop patio, which can still serve customers.

“We’re lucky to have a rooftop, and we’re lucky to have a landlord that’s responsive, and we’re lucky to have an ownership group that cares,” he said.

“I feel for the Harp & Fiddle,” Cullen said of a Bethesda bar that shut down this year. “I feel for all these people that are going down.”

Cullen said restaurants “won’t be able to make the numbers work” on takeout alone, due to commission fees by third-party delivery applications. He worries about the fate of independent businesses.

“Two or three years from now, they’re all gonna be chains. … You lose the character of every neighborhood when you lose these neighborhood places,” he said.

To help restaurants through the winter, Bethesda Urban Partnership (BUP) plans to add heated tents to portions of its Streetery in Bethesda — portions of streets that have been closed off and filled with tables and chairs for people getting takeout from nearby eateries.

BUP spokeswoman Stephanie Coppula said Wednesday that the organization plans to use relief money the County Council approved on Tuesday to purchase the additional equipment.

“Once tents are up, we’ll be able to better gauge how well they’re doing, and if it goes through that the restaurants can’t have anybody inside, this will be an opportunity to support restaurants while being outside,” she said.

Coppula said the tents will be added on Norfolk Avenue between Fairmont and Cordell avenues. She said BUP will follow the county’s regulation that the tents must have an opening to ensure ventilation.

Jill McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Federal Realty Investment Trust, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Wednesday that the company has requested to BUP that some of the funding from the county be allocated to outdoor spaces on Bethesda Row, which the company owns and manages.

Wednesday’s announcement by Elrich was not welcome for Terry Laurin, who owns the pub Finnegan’s Wake in Rockville Town Square with his wife, Vanessa.

“It’s not a shock, but it’s an unfortunate circumstance,” he said.

Laurin said that “people aren’t forced to walk into a bar or restaurant” and there needs to be more personal accountability, as opposed to government officials “telling us what to do.”

A better approach, Laurin said, would be a waiver system, in which customers sign an agreement that indemnifies a business against liability for the spread of disease. The idea, he said, is similar to the waiver that groups must sign at Rockville Ice Arena if they want to skate or play hockey.

“Imagine if back … when [the county] reopened us, that there was some mechanism to electronically allow for people to come in, indemnify us, sign a waiver,” he said. “… So, if they can do it with ice rinks and other recreational centers, why can’t they do it with restaurants and bars, and let the consumers make the decision?”

Last month, the county started requiring that customers collect contact tracing information to determine who had been exposed to the virus. But Laurin said no one has asked him to provide that documentation so far.

“Why is it that we have to have people give up their personal information to go see if they can contact trace? No one’s even bothered coming around for that. Meanwhile, I’ve got stacks of paper that have everybody’s info,” he said.

Laurin said despite the circumstances, landlord Federal Realty has “really stepped up” with financial assistance, equipment assistance and allowing the business to put up its holiday decorations. Additionally, the Streetery on Gibbs Street has helped business during the summer.

As for the winter, he said he and his wife will “do the best they can” to survive.

“People are walking around in fear. They don’t want to go into a tent, because it’s similar to indoors, so why bother. So we’re scrapping the tent,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com