Fairfax County restaurants see in-person diners return with pandemic rules lifted

About a month after Virginia lifted all COVID-19 capacity and social distancing requirements, in-person dining is starting to make a comeback at local restaurants, even as evolving guidance around masks suggests the pandemic may not be entirely in the rearview mirror.

From D.C. to northern Virginia, restaurants throughout the region look much different than they did a year ago, when many venues were either temporarily closed or just starting to invite customers back inside.

Now, restaurants are free to return to full occupancy, and patrons can eat and drink without fumbling with a mask, though individual businesses can still require masks if they choose to keep a policy in place.

“Carryout and to-go sales of alcohol are still continuing to help our restaurants, but yet, we are definitely seeing a shift in the return of more and more in-person dining,” said Barry Biggar, president and CEO of the Fairfax County tourism agency Visit Fairfax. “The future is bright and we are on a forward trajectory towards full recovery.”

In Herndon, the funky upscale pizza and craft beer joint Mellow Mushroom (1030 Elden St.) has seen customers in person go to a “whole new level” with restrictions dropping, general manager Ted Kinsall said.

Business hasn’t quite returned to 2019 levels yet, but he expects it to continue growing. Now, the eatery is dealing with a challenge that has become widespread in the food service industry: the need for workers.

Kinsall says his business is currently staffed at 70% with job openings in a number of positions, from cooks to servers and hosts.

Labor issues are complicating recovery efforts for an industry hit hard by job losses, stay-at-home orders, closed offices, and fluctuating public health rules.

“The positive news is that many of our restaurants are starting to see around 80 to 90 percent of pre-COVID numbers,” Biggar said in an email. “And while that sounds great, and sales are up, it does not always translate to straight profit. Many restaurants are still paying deferred rent, utilities, and other expenses that they had to hold off on paying due to the pandemic.”

While Virginia’s state of emergency is set to expire today (Wednesday), health officials have recently started raising new concerns about the spread of more dangerous COVID-19 variants, even for fully vaccinated people.

The Commonwealth followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s lead in May in easing mask requirements for fully vaccinated individuals in most places. But the World Health Organization suggested Friday (June 25) that even vaccinated individuals should still wear masks to reduce the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

Experts who talked with the Miami Herald advised caution regarding whether or not to wear masks, and the CDC hasn’t adjusted masking guidance based on the Delta variant, which was first detected in India and is estimated to contribute to one in five U.S. cases now.

The CDC says there’s evidence that the variant causes more severe disease and has increased transmissibility.

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