Winter Is Coming, And D.C. Restaurant Workers And Owners Are Worried


Alberto, a server at a restaurant in Shaw, is already preparing for winter.

Talking on the phone in between shifts, he worries about what will happen to his job when brisk fall evenings turn into bitter cold winter nights (He declined to share his last name or the name of the restaurant where he works to protect his privacy).

For one, he reasons that fewer people will dine at restaurants. Many people are still not comfortable eating indoors despite D.C.’s Phase 2 allowing it. Plus, even with the city offering businesses $6,000 to “winterize” their outdoor space, the cold may be too much for people.

“People will not be too happy to eat outdoors,” he says. “People will prefer to eat at home.”

There’s also his and his fellow employees’ safety. Alberto is worried that by adding heaters, coverings, tents, and furniture to a patio or a streatery, it’s essentially turning the outdoors — where it’s generally agreed that the virus has a lower risk of spreading — into the indoors.

“If there’s a tent, it’s not really outdoor space anymore,” he says. “If everyone is covered by that tent, it’s an indoor space.”

D.C. restaurants are in a tough predicament as they prepare for winter in midst of a pandemic. The city began allowing indoor dining in June, but many customers remain uncomfortable eating indoors, according to a number of restaurant workers and owners that spoke to DCist/WAMU. And there seems to be no indication that this mindset will change as the weather grows colder.

Patrick Fort, host of WAMU’s food podcast Dish City, addressed his own misgivings about dining out — especially indoors — in a recent episode. “Dining out feels so important to me right now, but at the same time, I find myself being too stressed out to actually go do it,” Fort said in the episode.

Some restaurant owners, like Alisha Edmonson of Songbyrd Cafe in Adams Morgan, say they’re not comfortable offering indoor dining either, and are sticking to tables outside for now. “D.C. [diners] seem to be inclined on the precaution side,” Edmonson says. “Everyone is asking for outdoors.”

Yet even as the city offers help, these same local establishments and workers have concerns about the effectiveness and cost of outdoor dining spaces in the winter.

“Would you want to go and drink outside when it’s 23 degrees out and sit next to a space heater? Not necessarily,” says Paul Vivari, owner of Showtime Bar in Bloomingdale.

This has led some to predict a mass extinction event for D.C. restaurants, on top of the number of popular establishments that have already closed in recent weeks.

“There’s been quite a bit of chatter [about] post-December and kind of an apocalyptic wave of closures,” says Zac Hoffman, executive president for the worker-driven advocacy group DC Bar and Restaurant Workers Alliance. “We’re going to have to buckle down and get ready for kind of a massive economic displacement of workers and capital and, maybe, a slight collapse of the entire local economy. Not to be an alarmist.”

Showtime Bar in Bloomingdale will be “winterizing” their outdoor space for the coming cold months.Paul Vivari / Showtime Bar

The city’s assistance is coming in the form of the $4 million Streatery Winter Ready Grant Program. The money is coming from the about $500 million that was provided to the District in the CARES Act, officials say. Approved restaurants will receive $6,000 each, an amount based on the resources available, consultation with the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, and the number of currently permitted streateries — about 594 — says John Falcicchio, Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

The money is expected to go to the renting or purchasing of tents, heaters, propane, lighting, furniture, and signage. “We know that this won’t necessarily cover all the costs for businesses to winterize, but we wanted to have an incentive for them to do their planning,” says Falcicchio.

Quick math shows that there is enough money for about 660 businesses to receive grants — Falcicchio says the city expects this grant opportunity will encourage a few more establishments to open outdoor spaces.

Some restaurateurs have already praised the grant.

Nina Gilchrist opened Provost on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast last June. It was a fulfillment of a nearly two decade old dream of hers to own a restaurant in the neighborhood she grew up in. After shutting down in March, she reopened in June and the outdoor rooftop has provided her steady revenue.

Gilchrist says customers have been calling her about plans for the winter, which has encouraged her to apply for the grant. She plans on using the money on electric heaters.

“I feel like a lot of our business comes from our local community that really is showing a lot of support,” Gilchrist says. “And with our local government, it only helps to give me hope and empowerment.”

Not everyone is so optimistic.

Up until March, Nikki Del Casale was a bartender at Union Pub in Northeast near Union Station. However, when the city directed restaurants and bars to close on March 16, Del Casale was laid off. When the restaurant reopened in early summer, she didn’t return to work. Her partner is at high risk for getting very sick from COVID-19, she says, and they didn’t want to chance it.

Her initial plan was to start working again in the restaurant industry in September or October, but that’s no longer the case due to cases continuing to tick up and a vaccine that will unlikely be available for most until 2021. Indoor dining worries her, particularly in the light of August’s reveal that a “increasing number” of people were dining out while infected with COVID-19. She also questions the city-backed plan to “winterize” outdoor spaces.

“If you are entirely enclosing an outdoor patio with a tent and heaters, that’s inside dining,” says Del Casale. “So why don’t we just admit that we want to pretend the virus doesn’t exist and open full indoor dining and save $4 million?”

According to D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration’s Phase 2 guidelines, canopies and tents may be used in outdoor spaces provided that they only have one side flap. Meaning, three flaps must be open and exposing the space to the potentially cold winter temperatures. “We think that streateries, whether it’s in the spring or it’s in the winter, can operate safely,” says Falcicchio.

But while this may keep the outdoor streateries safer, open tents will make them colder and, potentially, less appealing to potential diners and a hazard for employees.

“I’ve worked at places that have had patios … in the winter,” says Sophia Miyoshi, lead organizer for the D.C. chapter of food service worker advocacy group Restaurants Opportunities Center United. Even with heat lamps, it is extremely uncomfortable, especially when it gets really, really cold. “Serving and working [can be] horrible.”

There’s also additional costs associated with winterizing that, for some businesses, may not make it worth it.

Aaron McGovern is co-owner of Biergarten Haus (along with two other D.C. restaurants), a German-style beer garden on H Street near Capitol Hill. Their outdoor space is open all-year around and he uses propane heaters every year. He says the cost of propane is perhaps something that other restaurants may not be anticipating.

“[Last winter] we had a $4,000-a-month propane bill. It was ridiculous,” says McGovern. “That’s more than most of these [businesses] pay for their rents and mortgages for some of these properties.”

Edmonson of Songbyrd Cafe says that she’s been having trouble even finding heaters to purchase. “We are actively going to places to find them and looking online and what we are being told is, basically, every single restaurant is trying to do the same thing,” she says. “Heaters are the new hand sanitizer.”

Lack of diner enthusiasm, safety concerns, and the additional cost for businesses have many in the industry not feeling good about the future of the D.C. restaurant scene.

McGovern of Biergarten Haus says he’s heard from 15 fellow restaurant owners over the past few months telling him they were closing up shop. You’re going to see a skeleton of restaurants in D.C. by January,” he says. “And that’s sad.”

Miyoshi says ROC D.C. is more focused on efforts to increase and extend unemployment benefits since there’s a likelihood that there will be mass unemployment in the food service industry come winter.

Hoffman foresees D.C. dining changing forever. “It’s really just kind of the entire cultural collapse of the dining scene that is kind of looming over us all the time, especially with the colder weather coming.”

For the moment, Alberto is saving his money since he knows it’s likely his hours will be reduced when temperatures dip. He says his employers are doing the best they can to keep everyone employed and safe.

Alberto doesn’t know his employers’ plan for winterizing the outdoor space, but either way, he doesn’t think customers want to be outside and, frankly, neither does he.

“I’m very aware that as soon as winter hits, it’s going to be very cold,” says Alberto. “No one wants to be outside in the wintertime all that much.”

There are a few numbers that represent the impact of the pandemic to Jesse Jacobs: 90% down, 100 to six, four to zero.

Those figures encapsulate the hit his small business, Samovar Tea, has taken in revenues, employee count, and the number of stores open, respectively.

“Now we’re essentially using our own life savings and credit cards,” he tells Fortune of his San Francisco–based business, which has now pivoted to online sales. “That’s basically where we’re at.”

With numbers like those, small-business owners like Jacobs are a little preoccupied, even as the election looms in November. As a blanket wish, he says, “our needs would be met best by the right leader who has a calm, optimistic outlook with tactical solutions that benefit small business.”

Indeed, a presidential election is a spotlight-stealing event every four years, but 2020 is different. A pandemic has encompassed the U.S. for the better part of six months, and many small businesses are zeroed in on their own survival and how the economy might shape up next year. In fact, that’s the top concern for small-business owners this election, according to a new survey by business lobbying group U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife.

Yet while small-business owners report having a heightened interest in the 2020 election (62% report being more interested this year than in the previous election, per the U.S. Chamber–MetLife survey), many small-business owners’ principal concern right now may well be their income statement.

“Because they’ve seen such a deep decline in revenue, I don’t think there’s been much discussion as it relates to a national election and…the ramifications of a Democrat or a Republican being in the White House,” Bill Wilkins, a manager at the East Brooklyn Business Improvement District, tells Fortune of the small businesses in his community. “I’m working in an underserved, financially challenged community where everyone has to grind and make it. People are in survival mode.”

It’s impossible to capture the needs of millions of small businesses across dozens of different industries, but Fortune explored a few key areas that may still impact the small-business vote in 2020.

Economic recovery and assistance top small-business needs

When Fortune asked small-business owners what they needed from the 2020 election, one thing was repeated across many conversations: more certainty and more financial help.

After expediently passing a massive $2.2 trillion relief package back in March, Congress has been tied up in a battle over a fresh round of support for small businesses—and owners are facing a time crunch.

“If economic trends continue at this rate, one in five business owners anticipates they won’t make it until the end of the year,” says Kevin Kuhlman, the vice president of federal government relations for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), a nonprofit small-business advocacy group.

Even in parts of the country that are largely reopened, getting another loan, like those through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), will be “integral” for small businesses “making it in next steps,” Jennifer Hensley, the executive director of the Downtown Boise Association in Idaho, says of her community. Meanwhile, businesses in hard-hit industries like retail, which already received funds, “need more loans, they need more forgiveness, they need automatic forgiveness for small loans, they need less paperwork,” says David French, senior vice president of government relations at trade group National Retail Federation.

But many small-business owners don’t want the same kind of “Band-Aid,” as they describe it, that the CARES Act placed on their businesses’ bleeding gashes. For many of them, something more long-term is essential to see their businesses through the indefinite period of time the pandemic will affect them.

“We need a commitment for the duration, not just a small stint so that we have the confidence to move forward and plan, which is so much a part of running a small business,” says Sara Conklin, the founder of Glasserie, a restaurant in Brooklyn. Conklin’s business got a PPP loan, having seen revenues drop roughly 50% during the pandemic, but with winter coming, she’s nervous. That extra aid is perhaps especially crucial for businesses in the hospitality and retail industries who have been among the hardest hit by shutdowns, representatives for the National Restaurant Association, and the National Retail Federation tell Fortune.

Public policy think tanks like the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) have advocated for long-term, low-interest loans (the group has suggested 20- to 30-year terms at fixed interest rates at around 0% to 1%) to give small-business owners more than just a few months of support, the group’s president and CEO John Lettieri said on a recent press call.

That longer-term support may be key, because, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife’s new poll, more than half (55%) of small businesses said it would still be “six months to a year” for business in the U.S. to get back to normal.

But longer-term support needs to look a bit different for Black-owned small businesses, argues Ron Busby, the president and CEO of the U.S. Black Chambers. Black-owned businesses were some of the hardest-hit by the pandemic, with a more than 40% drop in active Black business owners early in the pandemic. With those businesses closed, “we don’t want loans,” Busby says. That’s why he suggests Black business owners need “money for startups, money for start-over firms, and that’s what the PPP and other programs have left out of the conversation.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber’s vice president of small-business policy Tom Sullivan points out (per the group’s newest survey) that one-third of small businesses actually report plans to increase investment in 2021, noting that “if they’re going to be putting their money where their optimism is, they want 2021 to be pretty darn good, and their elected leaders are the ones who are going to either make or break that environment.”

While the economy ranked as the top election issue “by far” based on the U.S. Chamber–MetLife poll, most of the trade and policy groups (as well as small-business owners) that spoke with Fortune did not view stimulus or economic aid as a partisan issue. But if a fresh stimulus doesn’t get passed before the election, the U.S. Chamber’s Sullivan believes small-business owners may well punish the incumbent in the polls.

Second-tier concerns: Health care, taxes

Yet as in any other election year, small businesses are always concerned with a few key issues: health care costs and taxes chief among them.

Every four years, the NFIB releases a Problems and Priorities survey of small businesses—and this year, like most others, the cost of health care (ranked No. 1 overall and by industry) and taxes (ranked No. 3 overall) topped the list. That’s also what the U.S. Chamber–MetLife survey found, with taxes (27%) and health care (25%) as top areas of focus for the election this year behind the economy.

For David and Dawn Replogle of Resolution Group Inc., a civil engineering and construction consulting firm founded by partners including David and based in Indiana, health care was an unexpectedly big charge in 2020. “We had a [28%] increase this year. It was huge, it was a big hit,” Dawn says. “I don’t think that was normal. I think 15% was more normal, but 15% cost increase just on health care, one line item, that’s a big chunk of our budget every year.” Their business goes through the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) Trust for their 23 employees’ health care (“It’s kind of our only option right now”), and the Replogles say they want more options for plans for smaller businesses.

“I think there is a desire to see a little bit more from both campaigns, to see what their policies and plans would be and perhaps a little bit less about personality,” NFIB’s Kuhlman suggests.

In terms of those plans, former Vice President Joe Biden says he will uphold and build upon the Affordable Care Act passed by his White House counterpart President Barack Obama. (Kuhlman, for one, suggests the Affordable Care Act has made health care more expensive and led to declining offer rates among small businesses in the past 10 years.) Perhaps one of the bigger changes Biden has proposed may be a so-called public option, which would be a government-funded addition seeking to cut costs and offer an alternative choice for employees, which his campaign claims would relieve the burden for small businesses struggling to provide insurance. Rosemary Boeglin, a spokeswoman for the Biden campaign, told Fortune in a statement that “Biden has laid out robust and detailed plans to build the economy back better, for all of us, by fortifying small businesses as the backbone of the American economy.”

The Trump campaign, meanwhile, just announced a long-awaited health care vision (though not necessarily a comprehensive new plan) that has largely been hinged on repealing the Affordable Care Act—a longstanding promise yet to materialize—and includes executive orders to protect those with preexisting conditions (a provision already in the ACA) and intentions to prevent “surprise” billing. A representative for the Trump campaign did not comment further to Fortune about the President’s health care plan.

For businesses in his purview, “issues like a joint employer or health care…are important [for] midterm and long-term planning,” says Sean Kennedy, the executive vice president for public affairs at the National Restaurant Association.

On the other side of the health care spectrum, Dr. Marianna Weiner, who owns a cosmetic dentistry practice in New York, needs the fees insurers themselves to pay to increase alongside the rising costs dental offices are paying. “The rent, salary, dental supply bills are going up,” she says, not to mention the added cost of personal protective equipment (PPE). That’s adding to the burden her business is already feeling after closing for three months this spring.

Meanwhile, some small businesses also report taxes high on their list of election needs. NFIB’s Kuhlman singles out one of the provisions passed in Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the 20% pass-through business tax deduction, set to expire in 2025. Of his members, Kuhlman argues, “We would hope in the next administration…that permanency becomes a priority.”

At present, the candidates’ two tax plans vary considerably, especially regarding corporations. Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28% on “day one,” but aims to leave taxes for people earning $400,000 or less per year unchanged, and has suggested he won’t raise taxes on small businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Trump, on the other hand, has said he wants to reduce capital gains taxes (Biden wants to raise them), while also having promised a “Tax Cuts 2.0” currently light on details. Without providing specifics, Samantha Zager, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, told Fortune, “the President knows small businesses are the lifeblood of American society, and in the midst of a pandemic he is working to ensure they are able to stay afloat and prosper once again.”

With roughly a month to go before small-business votes will be tallied, owners have a lot to think about. But those like the Replogles can sum up their needs in two tidy words: “Stability. Certainty.”

As Tuesday’s chaotic Presidential debate shifted to a discussion about the U.S. economy, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden seemed, yet again, to be operating in different stratospheres. As Trump boasted—without corroborating evidence—that “our country is coming back incredibly well” from the economic shutdown precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, Biden countered that the recovery hasn’t been so simple.

Though some measures indicate revival, he argued, the growth has primarily been concentrated in the stock market, where gains are made by people who have funds to invest. “Millionaires and billionaires like him in the middle of the COVID crisis have done very well,” Biden said. “But you folks at home, you folks living in Scranton and Claymont and all the small towns and working-class towns in America, how well are you doing?”

This exchange was largely drowned out by other arguments in the turbulent conversation. But Biden’s rhetoric hit on a theme that economists have been warning about for months: that America’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has been “K-shaped,” or mainly benefitting the affluent. American billionaires saw their wealth skyrocket by $282 billion between mid-March and mid-April, according to an analysis by the Institute for Policy Studies. Interest rates are down, allowing people who own their homes to refinance their mortgages. Those with jobs that provide 401Ks have seen their account balances rise to near pre-pandemic levels. Even pandemic-fueled price changes have tended to reduce the prices of goods and services that mostly benefit people who have money to burn; new cars, travel, and food delivery services have gotten cheaper.

Then there’s what’s happening to millions of less fortunate Americans. During the same March to April time period that saw billionaires’ gains spike, more than 22 million Americans lost their jobs. Those numbers have recovered somewhat, but the unemployment rate was still 8.4% in August—more than double the 3.5% before the pandemic hit. Eight million more people are unemployed today than were jobless in February. The same price shifts that made luxuries like food delivery cheaper have caused the inexpensive grocery store items that poor households rely on to become pricier.

The pain shows little sign of abating for this unlucky group; in many ways, it’s just getting worse. This week alone, Disney laid off 28,000 workers, and hundreds of thousands of airline workers could face a similar fate if Washington does not renew a federal assistance program that has been keeping the embattled industry afloat. Congress is still struggling to come to an agreement on the next coronavirus relief deal, even as several of the key programs serving as an economic lifeline have expired. One of the food assistance programs that was quickly rolled out to help children hit by the coronavirus-induced economic crisis is slated to end in several states this week. Evictions, which have been temporarily paused for most people who have been financially affected by the virus, will kick off again in the dead of winter.

This inequitable economic recovery can partially be blamed on Congressional inaction. Rare bipartisan camaraderie behind emergency relief efforts ended soon after Congress overwhelmingly passed a $2.2 trillion relief package in March. House Democrats subsequently passed a $3 trillion package in May, which would have extended many of these programs, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to vote on it, dismissing it as a “liberal wish list.”

The White House began negotiating with Democrats in July, but have been unable to reach an agreement on another round of relief since. As frustration has mounted within the Democratic caucus and the pandemic continued to rage across the country, Democratic leadership unveiled a pared-down proposal and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to confer with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But there is no guarantee an agreement that pleases all parties involved will come to fruition this time, either. Mnuchin said Wednesday evening that the total cost was still too high. House Democrats had expected to vote on the bill Wednesday evening but postponed a vote until Thursday to allow more room for further discussion, according to a Democratic aide. And any bill will need support from at least thirteen Republican Senators and the White House’s approval to actually become law.

As negotiations lurched along with this summer, programs that provided critical assistance have vanished, with more expiration dates on the way. The Payroll Support Program, which has been providing airlines with financial assistance to keep workers on the payroll, ends October 1. Airline executives have been warning for weeks that if no deal appears likely, hundreds of thousands of workers—which includes baggage handlers who earn a median income of $28,000 per year—will be furloughed. Two months ago, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program stopped sending a weekly allotment of $600 to supplement state unemployment benefits. And the Paycheck Protection Program, which administered millions of potentially forgivable loans to small businesses, closed on August 8.

Lobbyists on both sides of the aisle, particularly those advocating for industries hit hardest in the pandemic, are astounded their calls for help have fallen on mostly deaf ears. “Congressional inaction is occurring when restaurants are literally at the weakest point they’ve been in six months,” says Sean Kennedy, Executive Vice President at the National Restaurant Association. With the weather getting colder in much of the country, he argued, restaurants need extra reinforcements at the federal level that will enable them to stay open and adhere to safety standards, or otherwise risk permanent closure. “It’s amazing that restaurants suffering this much can’t galvanize or secure relief when every time a member of Congress goes home to their district they’re shocked to learn another restaurant [or] favorite hangout has closed their doors for good.”

Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, thinks the inability to reach an agreement in Washington stems partially from the fact that the recovery has disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Americans—including those who serve in Congress and the people in their social circles. “I think people see numbers improving and they actually don’t know anybody who’s struggling,” Evermore says. “The kind of people who serve in Congress don’t tend to have a lot of broke friends.”

Time is also running out on pandemic relief benefits that have kept children in low-income families from going hungry. Pandemic-EBT is a Department of Agriculture program that launched when schools closed to support to families whose children would normally qualify for free and reduced-price school meals by loading funds onto a prepaid card otherwise used for food stamp benefits. It ends September 30, despite the fact that somewhere around half of the nation’s public school students are still fully remote. (A few states have recently been authorized to continue the program on a more limited basis.) The Summer Food Service Program, also funded by the USDA, enabled kids in families of all income brackets to obtain free meals distributed by schools throughout their closures. It will lose funding in January.

Health care practitioners have already been seeing the impact of families’ scrambling to make ends meet on children’s health. “What I see every single day from the pandemic is really amazingly increased numbers of severely underweight children coming to our clinic, and parents really panicked about how they are going to find enough food,” Dr. Megan Sandel, co-director of the Grow Clinic for Children at Boston Medical Center and a lead investigator of Children’s HealthWatch, said on a recent press call.

Housing experts also fear what is to come in January, when a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium ends. At that point, renters who have so far avoided evictions because of eviction protections will owe months’ worth of back-rent, in addition to any late fees their leases stipulated. It is not yet known how many people may suddenly lose their homes during one of the coldest months of the year—but unless some form of rent relief or direct payment is passed, the figure will surely be staggering.

With all of this unraveling under his watch, Trump still claimed during Tuesday’s debate that he had built the “greatest economy in history” before the pandemic struck. If only examining the gains made by people who share Trump’s billionaire status, that might be right. But even before COVID-19 sent the economy into a tailspin, many low-income Americans probably would have disagreed. In 2018, nearly 40% of Americans couldn’t cover an unplanned $400 expense without going into debt, carrying a balance on their credit card, or borrowing the funds, according to a report from the Federal Reserve. Around the same time, three men in the U.S. collectively held more wealth than the poorest half of Americans, according to an Institute for Policy Studies report.

For some, the looming loss of housing and food protections—in addition to the lack of a second stimulus check and the standstill in Congress over extending protections for payroll relief—is only going to make things harder. Worse, says Evermore, is that few in power seem to care. “Goodwill toward people who lost work through no fault of their own has dissipated faster during this recession,” she says, “than at any time in history.”