Two days before Virginia was set to reopen in Phase One on Friday, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority announced that businesses can temporarily accelerate the process of expanding their outdoor dining areas to sell alcohol, which could boost revenue for restaurants whose sales have plummeted due to the pandemic.
For some restaurants, which need to provide a diagram for the outdoor expansion upon request before opening, the new ABC permit process is tricky and requires locality, property owner and health department approval. It’s not clear how long this process takes and some counties, such as Chesterfield, are still finalizing its permitting process.
Henrico County Planning Director Joe Emerson said the county is working toward fast tracking approval as well.
These loosened regulations rely heavily on locality discretion, which means they don’t apply to the City of Richmond, which requested a delay to Phase One reopening due to the continued increase of cases and hospitalizations and was granted the delay by Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday evening. This also means Richmond restaurants cannot offer patio dining without doing so illegally.
But some Richmond restaurants, such as Mama J’s, were not going to reopen because they do not have a patio or the ability to expand dining areas onto a sidewalk or parking lot. Mama J’s has minimal sidewalk space as it is, owner Lester Johnson said. While Johnson agrees rolling back ABC regulations is good for business, he said what drives his decisions is thinking about the safety of his 3-year-old daughter Lena and 73-year-old mother, not the potential of making money.
Neighboring counties, however, such as Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico are moving forward with reopening Friday.
Justin McDonald, co-owner of Crafted in Henrico County, said his restaurant is set to open its 1,000-square-foot patio Friday with six tables and a maximum of 30 people.
Although he understands the reasoning behind ABC easing regulations, he said it’s advantageous only to businesses capable of having space to expand. As for reopening, only the host will disinfect tables and customers will pay through their phone to limit interaction.
“It’s hard for a server to wrap their head around because you’re used to lingering for a minute,” McDonald said, adding that it’ll be an adjustment for customers to see servers with face masks on. “You kind of have to move forward optimistically and responsibly.”
Other restaurants in the county, such as Grapevine on Three Chopt Road, have a parking lot that can hold a sizable tent. Since the restaurant owns the lands, moving forward required configuring the layout: a 40-by-45 foot tent with 16 tables scattered more than six feet apart.
But owner Mitchell Trak is confused on Phase One guidelines, which said restaurants can be at 50% of outdoor capacity. Grapevine didn’t have one prior to the pandemic. With every table filled, its outdoor seating could reach 60 patrons. Occupancy is part of fire safety code in Virginia and is used for indoor spaces. Patios don’t have occupancy restrictions, so restaurants are doing their best.
“We’ve taken it on the lighter end right now. I’m kind of afraid that we are not quite prepared for this turnaround,” Trak said.
County administrators said in a combined statement to the governor Thursday that businesses have sufficient amounts of protective equipment, with each county supplying sanitizer and cleaning products for safety. The statement alleged that residents are depending on Phase One for work, and businesses are at the point of choosing whether to close permanently.
Without a regional consensus, some residents were concerned people who commute across localities can be both at risk and contribute to community transmission if asymptomatic.
In a press briefing Thursday, Chesterfield Health District Director Dr. Alexander Samuel said that based on the public health data, he’s not concerned with Chesterfield reopening.
As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, Chesterfield Health District, which includes Powahatan and Colonial Heights, had 1,005 cases with 909 of them in Chesterfield County. Cases and hospitalizations continue to increase. Richmond, which is not reopening, has 611 cases.