*

upload_article_image

Both businesses and customers conflicted as DC reopens

Starting Friday, a tiny slice of pre-pandemic normality starts returning to the nation's capital as a three-month old coronavirus stay-home order is replaced by the first phase of a reopening plan.

Barbers and hair salons will begin welcoming back clients grown haggard from months of self-maintenance. Non-essential businesses, shuttered since late March, will be able to start offering curbside pickup. And restaurants that have operating solely on takeout will start limited outdoor seating.

It's a major turning point in the District of Columbia's road to recovery after three solid months of economic and social lock down. But not everyone is in a hurry to return. All across the capital — and the four neighboring Virginia counties that are reopening on the same schedule —business owners and their customers are deciding whether they're really ready.

“I’ll be honest. I don’t know why (barbers) are in phase one,” said Ryan Mitchell, part owner of the St. Martin's hair salon in Washington's Mount Pleasant neighborhood. “Everyone wants to think this is over. I don’t see any reason to think that.”

Some, like Andy Shallal, who owns seven branches of the Busboys and Poets restaurant chain, have been ready to go for weeks. Shallal predicts the patios will be packed if the weather is good. Others are in absolutely no hurry to rush back into an uncertain landscape.

James Waterhouse runs Garden District, an outdoor beer garden in the heart of a lively stretch of bars and clubs. Theoretically, he's perfectly positioned to thrive in this outdoor phase. But he won't open Friday and won't predict when he'll be ready.

“I'm not comfortable with all the logistics of how it's going to work,” he said. “I'm going to be asking a lot of my staff and I need to know I can protect them.”

Washington remains an area of concern in the pandemic. There were 263.2 new cases per 100,000 people in the District of Columbia over the past two weeks, which ranks first in the country for new cases per capita.

All told, nearly 8.500 people in the District have tested positive for coronavirus, and 453 people have died.

Still, Waterhouse knows most of his regular clientele are eager to return, but some staff members have talked about staying away over safety concerns. He also seems genuinely bummed out about how the necessary safety modifications will change the overall vibe of his place.

“You won't be able to just sit at a picnic table with a group of strangers,” he said. "We'll have to serve beer in plastic cups. Its going to be an environmental disaster."

Lupo Verde Osteria, an Italian restaurant in the Palisades section of the city, was more enthusiastic. “Cannot wait for tomorrow!” the restaurant posted Thursday night on Instagram.

Customers are going to have to make their own set of decisions about their comfort level. In the Chevy Chase section of Washington, Liz Chambers and Michele High chatted on the otherwise empty patio of the Bread & Chocolate restaurant Thursday, hours before the official start of phase one. The restaurant was offering takeout service but also had set up tables and chairs on the patio.

High, a Washington resident, and Chambers, from Centreville, Virginia, said they probably wouldn't meet there if a lot of other people were around, even if they were six feet away. Asked if she thought the city was moving too quickly toward ending the shutdown, High said, “I can’t imagine the pressures that are on the mayor to reopen.”

On 14th Street downtown, Gretchen Moyer, a patent lawyer, wondered how nervous the mood will be as people emerge back into public.

“I think there will be a enough people out this first weekend to make it seem like a real party,” Moyer said. “But what happens when somebody at the next table sneezes? Actually, what happens when someone at the restaurant gets infected, because that's going to happen.”

At St. Martin's hair salon, Mitchell said he's targeting a June 15 reopening date. His lingering safety concerns are balanced by an endearing loyalty from clients desperate for an appointment.

“There's something about the psychology of haircuts. People view it as a big part of a return to normality," he said.

But first there are internal safety modifications to deal with, amid obstacles that include unexpected shortages of suddenly precious resources.

“From here to Baltimore, nobody has Plexiglas,” he said. “It was toilet paper, then it was hand sanitizer. Now it's Plexiglas.”

Associated Press writer Carole Feldman contributed to this report.

Follow Khalil on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ashrafkhalil