Restaurants in Virginia can open their bars to customers for the first time in more than a year thanks to a sudden, unannounced change that came late Wednesday afternoon — but patrons may want to hold off on immediate plans to belly up to one: Many Richmond restaurant owners say they’re not ready just yet.
The bar seating change came in an amended executive order signed Wednesday afternoon by Gov. Ralph Northam and allows restaurants to use their bar seating with 6 feet of distance between parties — and 6 feet between bar seats and other seating, such as bar-area tables.
Congregate areas, such as the waiting or entry areas of a restaurant, must remain closed except for through traffic and restaurants must still stop alcohol sales and serving dine-in customers by midnight until May 15, when that restriction will be lifted. The mask requirement for restaurant staff and patrons, except when actively eating or drinking, remains in effect.
“We are very pleased and a bit surprised at this move by Gov. Northam to allow restaurants to once again seat at their bar,” Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, which represents the state’s restaurant and hotel industries, said in an email.
Bars inside restaurants have been closed since March 23, 2020, when the governor ordered all restaurant dining rooms closed across the state. (Virginia doesn’t technically allow bars — that is, places that exclusively serve wine, beer or spirits without food, but most full-service restaurants have a bar area — a counter space where patrons can order alcoholic beverages from a bartender.)
Restaurant owners — especially independent owners with smaller establishments that depend on bar seating to round out their full capacity — have been eager to reopen the spaces.
There was hope among some local owners that the bar seating would have returned last year on July 1 with Phase 3 of the state’s opening plan, but the night before it began, Northam announced that bars would continue to be closed.
Some will wait
While restaurant owners have been eager for the return of bar seating, many say they won’t open theirs just yet.
A lot has changed since summer 2020, chiefly that restaurant owners are struggling with an “unprecedented” challenge to find staff, including bartenders, as Bobby Kruger, who co-owns the Brambly Park restaurant and winery in Scott’s Addition, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this month.
The staffing challenge in Richmond and beyond is tied to multiple factors, restaurant owners and industry workers shared, including the fact that many left the industry due to the stress of attempting to enforce state COVID restrictions and, as the pandemic wore on, increasingly difficult and demanding customers.
Further, a November 2020 study from One Fair Wage, a national service workers organization, found that 83% of tipped restaurant workers saw a decline in tips during COVID and 66% of workers said the decline was by at least half. And nearly 80% of respondents said they experienced or witnessed “hostile behavior from customers in response to staff enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols.”
So while diners took to social media to celebrate the reopening of bars on Thursday, many local restaurant owners were quick to caution that many might not yet open — and for those who do, diners should be patient.
“Just keep in mind it’s going to take time for restaurants to staff/pivot for this change, which has been hard enough as it is,” Travis Croxton, co-owner of Rappahannock restaurant in downtown Richmond, wrote in a post on a popular local restaurant Facebook group that had garnered more than 100 posts from diners celebrating the news.
“Not only getting more [front of the house] to serve those bar seats but also more pressure on the kitchen with more food orders. Please temper expectations about places being able to reopen their bar seating immediately. But it is good news indeed.”
Rappahannock’s bar won’t open right away; its dining room is still closed as the restaurant attempts to staff up for its reopening in the coming weeks.
“We will not be opening our bar seating,” said Brian Moore, owner of Chez Max in Henrico County. “The 6-feet restrictions would mean eliminating the two tables we have in our bar for a total of eight seats to recover less seats at the bar. It also creates a point of contention when the available seats are taken and you still have guests wanting to sit at the bar.”
‘This is big’
Others, including The Stables at Belmont in the Museum District, celebrated the change — and the addition of much-needed seats.
“I got me five extra seats today and couldn’t be happier. Wish it was more, but I’ll take what I can get,” said Evan Campbell, the restaurant’s executive chef.
And EAT Restaurant Partners — the largest independently owned restaurant group in the Richmond area — said it’s hurrying to open the bars at all 15 of its local restaurants, however they can and by the end of Thursday.
“Where we can seat people at the bar safely, we’re going to seat them immediately,” said Chris Staples, director of marketing for the group.
In some cases, Staples said, the restaurant will push tables up against the bar to maximize seating. In others, to keep enough distance between the bar seats and existing tables, such as at Wong Gonzales in downtown Richmond — customers will find traditional bar seating — with 6 feet between parties.
Staples said the group empowered the general managers at each restaurant to figure out what works best for the individual restaurant, which in some cases involves getting bar seating out of storage, where it’s been to discourage customers from using it; in others, the bar has been used to stage takeout orders, which are still strong, so the managers will have to find another spot in the restaurant to use. But the hope, Staples, said, was that all of EAT restaurants, which includes Foo Dog, Fat Dragon, Boulevard Burger and Brew and Osaka — would have bar seating set up by Thursday evening.
“This is big,” he said. “It’s getting back to normal, and that in and of itself is a kind of tiny little miracle.”
Change without notice
The change allowing bar seating went into effect immediately Wednesday afternoon when Northam signed the order. It was uploaded to the governor’s website under the executive order section as a PDF, which was flagged with an updated banner and presented amended changes in bold.
No other communication or announcement was shared to indicate the reopening of bars for customers, which was first reported by The Virginian-Pilot around 10:30 p.m., so Staples, like many others in the restaurant industry, found themselves scrambling for details late Wednesday night.
Terry, head of the state’s restaurant group, said he got a heads up from someone in the governor’s office Wednesday afternoon that a change allowing bar seating would be coming. He alerted a few of VRTLA’s members, who shared the news with other restaurant operators around the state and sought to find out if the order was real and immediate.
For local restaurant owners, the last-minute changes to their business operations causes confusion and unnecessary scrambling, said Croxton of Rappahannock.
“I really wish Northam’s administration would give us and the public more of a heads up in regards to these announcements,” Croxton said, adding that bar confusion reminded him of what happened in November when Northam announced a 25-person cap on gatherings via a video release on a Friday afternoon with no other information. For most of the weekend, restaurants across the state were unclear if the 25-person cap applied to restaurants (it didn’t).
“Every restaurant in the state is now having to deal with hundreds of calls from customers about what our plans are tomorrow and inevitably leading to more pressure on operators and staff with how to handle customer expectations,” Croxton said. Croxton pointed to California, where he also has a restaurant, and Washington, D.C., as places where the leadership is giving restaurant owners ample notice about business changes.
“Gov. [Gavin] Newsom hasn’t had the best go of it during the pandemic, but a few weeks back he declared 100% restrictions lifting effective June 15. That enables us to plan ahead for how we adjust our operations and something to work towards. In D.C., Mayor [Muriel] Bowser also announces changes weeks in advance.”
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the announcement about bars opening, which went into effect Wednesday, was announced Thursday afternoon along with the relaxing of other COVID restrictions, including increasing social gatherings and alcohol sales restrictions for restaurants, which are coming May 15.
“The governor is constantly looking at the data and consulting with health officials — as vaccinations continue to rise, we felt it was safe to take these measured, targeted steps,” Yarmosky said.
Croxton reiterated that he’s happy to have the option of the bar back — and by the end of the workday Thursday, advance notice from Northam’s office on another restaurant change: effective May 15, restaurants can stay open as late as they want and serve alcohol past midnight and until 2 a.m., which is back to their pre-COVID times.