In a normal year, Gavin Coleman would spend weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s Day planning for a multi-day celebration at his family’s 47 year-old Capitol Hill pub, the Dubliner. He’d book Irish dancers and musicians, order over 100 kegs, and hire extra staff and security to accommodate the throngs of revelers coming through the door—including, one year, President Obama, who dropped in for a pint. And now?
“I think a lot of the St.Patrick’s Day business will go out to Virginia,” says Coleman, who’s planning a more modest celebration here in DC. He’ll offer seated indoor and outdoor streetery reservations, plus a morning sandwich pop-up. “DC has more strict regulations,” he says. “The Dub is known for live Irish music—we haven’t had it in a year. We won’t be able to use our bars. It’s tough—it’s been tough during this whole pandemic.”
The fact—and frustration—that Covid restrictions for bars and restaurants vary widely in the Washington area isn’t new. But holidays, especially spirited ones like St. Patrick’s Day, emphasize the discrepancies between how businesses can operate in the District, nearby Maryland counties, and Northern Virginia. In DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser has maintained a set of strict guidelines. There’s no live music, DJs, or entertainment and no standing or bar service. There are 25 percent capacity limits inside dining rooms, while tables are allowed to seat six people maximum. An alcohol curfew kicks in at 10 PM.
Over in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, live music is permitted in restaurants, but businesses are still limited to that 25 percent indoor capacity, and there are 90-minute table limits in MoCo (despite Governor Hogan recent lifting all capacity limits on bars and restaurants). By comparison, Virginia is, as one bar owner called it, “the wild west.” Dining rooms can operate half-full, live music and DJs can play as long as they’re at least 12 feet from patrons, groups of ten can crowd around tables, and the green beer can flow until midnight.
In DC, pub owners expressed frustration over what they see as revenue lost to businesses in Virginia—even though those same Virginia partiers may return home to the District. Meanwhile, pubs across the river are bracing for a possible influx of customers who are eager to travel for more loosely regulated fun. With that in mind, some Virginia business owners are taking the “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” approach. Tipperary native Mark Kirwan, who owns DC pub Kirwan’s on the Wharf and Samuel Beckett’s in Shirlington, is implementing reservations and timed table limits at both locations. In DC, he’s planning a virtual dinner to ward off in-person crowds; in Virginia, he’s hired extra security staff to monitor a celebration that will include outdoor music and masked Irish dancers.
“This is the Irish Super Bowl: usually our month when we make enough money to buffer us over months that are poor. It’s depressing” says Kirwan, who would typically host huge multi-day celebrations at both locations. “We’re not going to take any nonsense from anyone. I’m looking at the big picture rather than the big bang for your buck. The business we’ve maintained—small but regular, lots of families—is because we’re taking the extra [safety] steps.”
Other pub owners say they’re spreading festivities out over multiple days to dissuade big crowds on March 17—similar to the ones that overwhelmed Mexican restaurants on Cinco de Mayo last year (and caused a lot of public shaming on social media). Dave Cahill, general manager of Ireland’s Four Courts in Arlington, has several daily events planned from March 13 through St. Patrick’s Day, including an Irish pub quiz and outdoor music. “We’re encouraging people not to all come celebrate on one day,” says Cahill. “We have extra cleaning staff to make sure everything is sanitized, and extra door men so we only have a certain amount of people in the same time.”
Certain popular Irish destinations aren’t even promoting their festivities as normal. Caroline Jonhston, a business consultant for The Irish Inn at Glen Echo, says they’re planning “a small outdoor event” with live music. “We’re trying to get the word out, but the Irish Inn doesn’t really want to advertise because they’re worried about crowds and they want to keep within the restrictions. They’re very serious about them,” says Johnston.
Bar owner Mike Bramson, who operates the Clarendon PopUp Bar as well as Rebel Taco in DC, is planning what sounds like a party from the Before Times: a “ShamRock n’ Roll” in the old Clarendon Ballroom space, with DJs and green beer. That is, aside from all the Covid restrictions (i.e. no standing or bar seating) and safety regulations, including a policy that mostly involves reservations for the distanced, club-like tables. Still, he says he’s expecting a full house in VA—something he might not see in DC.
“I do believe people are traveling to Virginia spaces. It’s frustrating to have one location being overbooked [Clarendon Pop-Up] and another location losing business [Rebel Taco DC],” says Bramson. He says the main deterrent in DC right now is the six-person table limit and 10 PM alcohol curfew. “Our restaurants and bars appeal to a younger crowd, and they come in bigger groups.”
March 17 marks more than St. Patrick’s Day—it’s the date last year when restaurants and bars in DC and Maryland were first shut down for dine-in service due to the pandemic. (Virginia Governor Ralph Northam didn’t follow suit until a week later, though many pubs cancelled their celebrations). For pub owners like Coleman, it’s been a rough road since. He says business at the Dubliner is down 80 percent, and even though his St. Patrick’s Day celebration is comparably minuscule to years past, he hopes the holiday will give the bar a revenue bump—and maybe President Biden will follow in Obama’s footsteps.
“Biden used to be a regular on his way to train station when he a Senator,” says Coleman. “I know he certainly remembers us. It would be amazing for him to stop by.”