Memorial Day weekend 29 will likely be an extra busy one for restaurants, craft beverage makers and shops.
That’s because on Friday, May 28, Virginia will lift the distancing and capacity restrictions that have been in place for more than a year to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam announced late last week. And hospitality businesses are getting ready to relearn how to run a packed venue.
“I was happy when he said June 15 a couple weeks ago, and then when he came out on Friday and said May 28 full capacity, that made me really nervous, because we’re not there yet,” said Tony Stafford, founder of Ford’s Fish Shack.
Even before the pandemic, Stafford had warned of the difficulty hiring restaurant staff in Loudoun. The COVID concerns and higher unemployment benefits have made it even harder to hire people for what restaurants have historically paid—often less than the current unemployment benefit of up to $678 a week in Virginia, and well below Loudoun’s living wage of $19.92 an hour for a single person with no children, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.
“We’re relying on a lot of friends to help us right now,” said Buford’s Biscuits co-founder Charles Schech. “They’re getting us through, but we’ve had ads posted for a while and nobody’s coming at it. There definitely is a worldwide restaurant employee shortage.”
For Buford’s, which opened in downtown Leesburg during the pandemic, it will be the first time that the restaurant is allowed to welcome guests up to its full occupancy permit. Schech said Buford’s will keep limiting seating inside for a little while anyway, to help everyone feel as comfortable as possible in the small space. At the same time, they are adding more seating outside.
“We don’t want to go backwards, we’re going to keep it just a little while longer,” Schech said. “Same with the mask. The staff is vaccinated, but just to make sure—there’s people that may say that they are but aren’t—and just to keep people comfortable.”
Northam has already lifted the universal mask mandate to align with Centers for Disease Control guidance. Fully vaccinated people now need not wear masks even indoors except on public transit, in health care facilities, and in congregate settings.
Businesses continue to be able to require masks—and some do. Employees in sectors like restaurants, retail, fitness, personal care, and entertainment must also continue to wear masks unless fully vaccinated. And some people are staying masked just to avoid making others uncomfortable, as people get adapted once again to life the way it used to be.
“On the employee side, we’re still requiring masks, because I don’t want an employee, a server or a bartender to go to a table that maybe the bartender or the employee has been vaccinated, but the guest doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable asking the employee, ‘hey, have you been vaccinated?’” Stafford said.
As to the guests, Stafford and Schech both said, they’re going to take guests at their word—if they come in unmasked, they’re trusted to be fully vaccinated.
Being the hot new restaurant in town has had its ups and downs for Buford’s.
“We’re very fortunate that on Saturdays and Sundays it’s been very consistent. We’re doing the most that we can possibly do, but still struggling with not qualifying for any of these grants or anything because we weren’t open in 2019,” Schech said. Generally, COVID-19 business relief grants have required businesses to show that they lost revenue compared to before the pandemic—difficult to show, for a business that didn’t exist before the pandemic. “This new round of grants that came out, we should be able to do something, and I guess we’ll reinvest in more equipment or something like that.”
The governor’s office has announced that the state of emergency in Virginia will continue at least through June 30 to provide flexibility for local government and support ongoing COVID-19 vaccination efforts. After that, Northam said he will take executive action to ensure individuals have the option to wear masks up to and after that date—currently, outside of a state of emergency, wearing a mask is illegal in Virginia. Masks will continue to be required in K-12 public schools, given low rates of vaccination among children.
“Virginians have been working hard, and we are seeing the results in our strong vaccine numbers and dramatically lowered case counts,” Northam stated.
In Loudoun, more than 50% of the entire population has had at least one shot and 40% are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health. The average number of new COVID-19 cases has dropped below 20, down from more than 80 a day four weeks ago. It is the lowest daily case count since the earliest days of the pandemic in April 2020.
“That’s why we can safely move up the timeline for lifting mitigation measures in Virginia. I strongly urge any Virginian who is not yet vaccinated to do so—the vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and your community from COVID-19. The message is clear: vaccinations are how we put this pandemic in the rearview mirror and get back to being with the people we love and doing the things we have missed.”
For people who missed going out to their favorite haunts and seeing all their old friends, the end is in sight.
“It’s going to be a challenge, and the main think I’d like to tell the readers is, be patient with your restaurants, be patience with all your retail things,” Stafford said. “…Even though we closed real fast, it’s going to take us a while to get reopened and figure out what a full restaurant or a full business feels like.”