As a center for nightlife and entertainment for young people in D.C., the U St. Corridor is home to the District’s finest restaurants, bars and clubs. Over the past year and a half, the pandemic has threatened the health and welfare of those working in the service industry. The new COVID-19 variant Omicron has left restaurant workers on U Street questioning why the District’s mask mandate was ever lifted in the first place.
Omicron has now been detected in the DMV, with three cases identified in the greater Washington area of Maryland. No positive cases of Omicron have yet been identified in the District.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser dropped the District’s mask mandate earlier in November — one week before the World Health Organization recognized Omicron as a variant of concern. This week, news of Omicron creeping closer to D.C., combined with an increase of 6.8% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 this past month, has now prompted the mayor’s office to re-issue an indoor mask ‘recommendation.’
According to the CDC, the COVID-19 Omicron variant spreads faster than the orginial COVID-19 virus, although more research is needed to understand if Omicron will cause more severe illness. While vaccines are expected to protect people from high risk side effects, hospitalization, and death, breakthrough infections are expected to occur.
In the wake of Omicron, restaurants enforce mask wearing
The Wash spoke with representatives from Busboys and Poets, Alero, Ben’s Chili Bowl, and The Smith about how restaurants are grappling news of the new variant, and the new D.C. mask ‘recommendation’.
As for the reason that D.C. doesn’t have a mask mandate right now — “I don’t really know why,” said Al Em, the manager of Busboys and Poets on 14th St. NW.
In the wake of Omicron, Em said Busboys and Poets is taking mask-wearing seriously, regardless of whether there’s a mandate to wear a mask indoors. To get booked into the rota, all employees are required to wear a mask on their nose and mouth at all times and also receive complete dosages of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’re just doing our part though,” said Em. For a company with more than 100 employees spread across its chain, “we are one of the few companies that does not have a lot of cases. As far as I know, there’s been no COVID exposed within Busboys and Poets.”
One block east of Busboys and Poets, upbeat music and colorful banners signal U St.’s popular Mexican restaurant Alero. Manager of Alero Julieta Hernandez said that the mayor’s mixed messaging as to whether or not masks should be worn places a safety stressor on restaurant staff.
“Personally, I’m more worried because we don’t know what’s going to happen with Omicron, so it can be more difficult now,” said Hernandez.
With the inevitable first Omicron case awaiting D.C., Hernandez said decisive measures would put the Alero staff more at ease. “For me, I’d prefer it to be mandatory mask,” she said.
Safety as a priority — ‘Thank you for your cooperation!’
Ruth Palacios, a hostess from U St. restaurant The Smith, reiterated this sentiment. Even though the D.C. law is not requiring patrons to wear a mask, The Smith is self-enforcing a mask mandate for all people who enter the restaurant.
At The Smith, “We always are supposed to have safety as a priority — safety to our customers, because we don’t want any customer to get sick,” said Palacios.
Outside of the District’s famous Ben’s Chili Bowl, a piece of paper triple-taped to the glass door reads: ‘Masks must be worn inside at all times unless you are seated dining. Thank you for your cooperation!”
Owner and Manager of Ben’s Chili Bowl Vida Ali said that while the pandemic was difficult for business, first and foremost, her priority was to protect the safety of the restaurant’s team members and their guests.
“We definitely still ask the team to wear a mask, and we ask the guests to wear a mask,” Ali said.
It’s no surprise that the mayor’s guidelines have changed over time correlating with varying incidence rates of COVID-19, said Ali. But, regardless of the COVID-19 status in the city and messaging from the D.C. Department of Health, the restaurants’ philosophy for Omicron has definitively stayed the same as before — masks required.
“It’s just making everyone as comfortable and as safe as possible,” she said.