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WATCH NOW: 'Light at the end of the tunnel': Local restaurants open up bar seating after restrictions eased

When Will Richey heard that he could open up his bars again after a year of uncertainty for his businesses, he was overwhelmed with relief and excitement.

Richey is the owner of Ten Course Hospitality, which owns several bars and restaurants in the Charlottesville area, including The Whiskey Jar, Revolutionary Soup and The Bebedero.

When Gov. Ralph Northam announced on April 22 that restaurants could open up limited bar seating again under some restrictions, Richey said he started to “feel the light at the end of the tunnel” for himself and others in the restaurant industry, which has been struggling since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States in March 2020.

“It was an amazing day. I joked that it should be an annual holiday,” Richey said.

“We were all very excited that any of us could sit at a bar. I wasn’t even sitting in my own bars or allowing staff to sit at our bars, and we’re all in this industry because we like bars,” he said.

Prior to Northam’s announcement, Richey’s bartenders were working as part of the regular staff of waiters. While they prepared drinks for customers seated at tables, Richey said the atmosphere of the restaurants was missing the connection between a customer and a bartender that comes from sitting at the bar.

“It was great to see my teams really rise to the occasion and really work together and form a tight unit to get us through the last year,” Richey said. “But there’s something really special about the customer and bartender relationship.”

After Northam’s announcement, Richey reopened bar seating at all of his restaurants, but they are still at about 50% or less capacity due to the six-foot spacing between parties required under the governor’s order. Richey said that, on average, his restaurants can fit about two or three parties of up to four people at the bar under these guidelines.

Restaurants and other venues can use bar seating only if there is six feet between patrons, according to the order. The previous version of the order said bar seats and other “congregating areas” of restaurants had to be closed.

Dining and drinking establishments must keep up other precautions, such as regular cleaning and distancing tables.

Richey said that opening bar seating has helped business already because his restaurants are able to serve more people.

“You go in there any day of the week right now and there are people at the bar. There’s something special about sitting at a bar, talking to a bartender, being served in that way. And those who love it, really love it. So it’s great,” he said. “Since the day it was announced, we’ve had people at the bar full time. You could tell that they’re just happy to be back, enjoying their afternoon or evening in that way.”

Richey’s restaurants have been operating at about 40% or less of capacity due to the table spacing rule. These capacities vary by establishment due to the physical size of each building and how many tables can fit within the socially distanced model.

Richey said opening bar seating has made him optimistic that business will improve. He said business was slow in the winter.

While his restaurants installed outdoor heaters purchased with money from a city grant so that they could maintain some outdoor seating as it got colder, customers were less interested in dining outside than they were in the summer and fall. But Richey said his businesses have noticed an uptick in customers in the past week.

“We’re still not anywhere near full or our normal numbers,” he said. “Now that spring is giving us some nicer weather, we’re seeing some better numbers because of outdoor seating and we had a great week last week with the introduction of bar seating again. And we just hope that that continues.”

While Richey is excited to reopen the bar, he said he is still concerned about safety and his restaurants will still take precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. The bars still must close at 10 p.m., and Richey thinks this has mitigated some of the issues with customers not respecting social distancing protocols.

“The real traditional bar problems happen between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. That window has not opened up yet but when it does, we’ll probably try to stay open till 2 a.m. like we used to on the weekends, but we’re going to continue with seats only. We’re not going to do standing room or anything like that until we’re fully out [of the pandemic],” Richey said.

Northam is expected to lift the restaurant closing protocol on May 15 so that restaurants will no longer be required to remain closed between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.

Richey said while there were some issues with some customers not respecting social distancing protocols earlier in the pandemic, those problems have eased.

“Customers get it now. Sure, yes, there were problems with customers when this all started who just didn’t get it and didn’t want to obey the rules, but we’ve kind of weeded those folks out. Either they got mad at us and haven’t come back, or they got what we’re struggling with and are being helpful,” he said.

“We’re just grateful that the community is trusting us, and everyone I know who works in restaurants is working so hard to continue to keep it safe.”

Hunter Smith owns several restaurants in the area, including Champion Grill at the Shops at Stonefield and Brasserie Saison and Champion Brewing Co. in downtown Charlottesville. When he got the news that bar seating could open again, he said he was excited but also “cautiously optimistic.”

“Our plan was to put stools together in pairs six feet apart and then have a few extra stools available if needed. If we get a large party of four people sitting together, then we’ll move some stools in, and then just make sure that party is appropriately distanced,” Smith said.

Smith said he hasn’t experienced any issues with customers resisting social distancing measures.

“People have been both excited and perfectly fine with being compliant. I think everyone’s behaving themselves,” he said.

Champion Grill and Brasserie Saison have opened their bar seating and their indoor and outdoor dining was already open at 50% capacity. The Champion Brewing taproom will be opening in the coming week to indoor diners for the first time since the pandemic started because there was not enough indoor seating separate from the bar.

“This is kind of the catalyst for us reopening,” Smith said. He said he is grateful and relieved that the reopening of bar seating will particularly increase the number of customers who can be served in the taproom. Smith said there already has been an uptick in customers across all of his restaurants since Northam’s order.

Smith is especially excited that his new restaurant, Champion Ice House, which will be opening in Gordonsville in two weeks, will be able to open with bar seating in place.

“We’re really excited that we can open with bar seating because we were concerned about opening this new business [without it],” he said.

Like Richey, Smith said he thinks that bringing back bar seating will renew the atmosphere in his restaurants.

“It’s nice to have an indication that [sitting at the bar] is safe because it’s one of the aspects that people like the most about indoor dining, it’s a way to engage in a hospitable way with guests,” Smith said. “Table service is great and serves a purpose, but there’s something missing without a functional bar.”

Charlottesville establishments Random Row Brewing Co., on Preston Avenue, and Ace Biscuit and Barbecue, on Concord Avenue, have both also resumed bar seating.

“We measured out, and have spaced our seating just right to have a couple bar seats,” Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint on Second Street Southeast posted on its Facebook page on April 22 after Northam’s announcement.

The Fitzroy, on the Downtown Mall, is still operating on a reservation system and does not currently offer bar seating.

Charlottesville’s City Council repealed its COVID-19 ordinance on April 19. The ordinance had stricter guidelines than the state on restaurants and bars.

Councilor Heather Hill introduced the resolution to repeal the ordinance as Northam’s latest executive orders have been less restrictive and it was becoming difficult for the city to follow the ordinance. The city now defers to the state’s COVID-19 guidelines. The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors repealed its COVID-19 ordinance on April 7.

“When things were changing, demonstrably over the winter, we had to revisit our ordinance and make adjustments to try to stay in line with things that we believe we should be more aligned with the state on. And it just became really cumbersome to maintain,” Hill said.

Hill said part of the reason the City Council put the ordinance in place in the summer of 2020 was because of concerns about University of Virginia students coming back to town from all over the state and country for the fall 2020 semester.

“As the year has evolved, it became more and more clear that this was less and less necessary,” she said. “It is less confusing to align with the state, especially as vaccinations are more prevalent and we receive new guidance from the CDC.”


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