Carryout and COVID: should the Maine Avenue Fish Market continue normal operations?

There can be no question that, at this point in the effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve reached a stage where national unity—if any such thing ever existed—is under strain.  Through much of March and at least the first week of April, the overwhelming majority of the country agreed that a lockdown was critical to stopping the spread; those who questioned the constitutionality of these prescriptions remained reasonably reticent, recognizing the risk of complacency in the face of a novel coronavirus with a widespread outcome that remained uncertain.  The tenor of these arguments grew increasingly fractious by the 10th of April, induced in part by state leadership grudgingly embracing a potential treatment (and maybe even a prophylaxis) through a few common generic drugs, combined with the growing realization that many people have already unwittingly exposed themselves to the virus; perhaps a majority of the infected are asymptomatic.  These revelations galvanized a variety of liberation movements, no doubt prompted by escalating financial pressures for the sizable portion of the population who have been unable to work for over a month.  In contrast, we receive highly conflicting news about both the disease’s still considerable virulence (especially among seniors and those with pre-existing conditions, and most pronounced in dense cities), the questionable efficacy of the most widely touted treatments (hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin), and the day-to-day progress on “flattening the curve” amidst rising numbers for both confirmed cases and mortality.

With all these factors butting up against one another, it was inevitable that the period of unity would be brief.  And we cannot neglect divergence in the state-by-state implementation of restrictions: some are so draconian as to regulate what items are “essential” enough to purchase, thereby restricting numerous specialty-oriented retailers or closing off whole sections at the big box stores like Walmart.  Some states even prohibit people from sheltering in their second homes.  Perhaps this is necessary; the states with the stiffest lockdown measures also tend have higher infection rates.  Meanwhile, five states never issued a stay-at-home order to begin with, and three others allowed county and municipal governments to decide the stringency of orders.  Not surprisingly, these eight states (mostly less urbanized) have seen far less need for drastic measures, since their caseload has remained low.

My previous article explored how people regarded social distancing at the Tidal Basin in Washington DC, during the peak bloom of the city’s celebrated cherry blossoms—specifically, Sunday, March 22nd.  Because people clearly weren’t meeting the standards for social distancing on that fine spring day, the city quickly responded by closing access to the Tidal Basin altogether, within 24 hours after I took those roseate photos.  And, several days later, after the peak of the cherry blossom season had passed, the city’s leadership reopened the park space around the Tidal Basin while continuing to close off the adjacent streets to vehicular traffic.

Elsewhere during this same pleasant Sunday trip through along the city’s waterfront, I witnessed yet another example of how commerce strives to maneuver around social distancing rules, a subject I’ve reported upon in the past.  In Washington DC (and across the vast majority of the country), restaurants that have remained open must comply with COVID-19 regulations that allow them to serve exclusively as carryout or delivery establishments only; in short, they operate as kitchens, and their in-house seating is closed.  But what about food vendors that exclusively sell carryout?IMG_2491IMG_2490The Maine Avenue Fish Market (often called the Fish Wharf) predates New York City’s famed Fulton Fish Market by nearly two decades; it has remained in continuous operation for over two centuries.  Up until recently, it was a comparative obscurity, despite being a tolerable walking distance from such tourist attractions as the Jefferson Memorial and the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It directly abuts the new, glitzy Wharf development, featuring mixed-use structures with expensive apartments and condos atop retail, which I have featured in the past. and the difference between the two commercial nodes is stark: on this same day in late March, the Wharf is all but deserted, with a handful of restaurants offering carryout from their vestibules.IMG_2489But the open-air market character of the Fish Wharf is (relatively speaking) surging.IMG_2492

I’d wager that the clientele at Maine Avenue Fish Market were exercising a similar level of solicitude to those at the Tidal Basin just a few hundred yards away: more spacing than usual, but hardly at the level that states sought to impose on the population just a week later, as March transitioned to April.  Beyond that observation, the backgrounds of the people at the two nodes diverge greatly.  The Tidal Basin at all times is a tourist attraction: though considerably less busy than the nearby National Mall or the most popular museums in the Smithsonian collection (most of which flank the Mall), those tourists who are interested in a longer walk frequently enjoy the picturesque waterfront views, both of the Jefferson Memorial or the Washington Monument from a distance, while memorials to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. attract additional onlookers.  Local residents of the District also frequent the Tidal Basin, often for exercise (since it’s not a novelty), but tourists outnumber the locals most of the year.  Conversely, the noisome open-air market on Maine Avenue only attracts visitors in-the-know; relatively few of the products are prepped for immediate consumption.  The fishy smell should serve as enough of a cue that many of the vendors sell a catch that is fresh off the boat, so the Maine Avenue Fish Market essentially specializes in carryout seafood as produce, to be cooked at home.  The hotel-oriented tourist contingent is unlikely to see much appeal in this.  Where are they going to cook three pounds of whiting, and how would they get it home?  It should therefore come as no surprise that the Maine Avenue Fish Market is historically an attraction predominantly for people who live nearby—the locals getting their carryout.

These two nodes—the Tidal Basin and Maine Avenue Fish Market—motivate different groups of people for entirely different reasons.  And the City’s treatment has diverged as well.  The photos from my previous article on the Tidal Basin depicted it on that fateful day, right before the City completely closed public access to all those pretty cherry blossoms.  (To compensate for the complete restriction, the Trust for the National Mall offered a live-streamed “bloom cam” for enjoying the tableau.)  The Fish Wharf continued its normal operations, and visual indicators would suggest that the vendors at the market have enjoyed some of the most consistent patronage of any retail-oriented small businesses in the vicinity—probably not on par with a weekend under normal conditions, but certainly not the 75% drop in revenue that most sit-down restaurants have reported.  The vendors along Maine Avenue had to change little to their operations in response to the restrictions imposed on most businesses after the pandemic, while most other restaurants faced considerable limitations to business, as seen below at a restaurant in the city’s busy Logan Circle neighborhood:IMG_2578This is the status quo during the pandemic: people waiting for their carryout orders in what used to be al fresco dining—a facsimile of the wait-until-your-name-is-called conditions at the Fish Wharf every day.

Amidst the closures at the Tidal Basin just down the road, the seafood vendors here seemed to hold their own remarkably well.  No surprise; the nodes are demographically unrelated.  But by early April, things started to heat up at the Fish Wharf enough that those vendors also faced a public health crackdown: by the 4th of April, Mayor Muriel Bowser had to implement an equally stringent policy, due to lack of appropriate social distancing.  Here’s the scene on the 7th:IMG_2563No carryout.  Completely closed.  Thus, through the stroke of an executive pen, the vendors at Maine Avenue Fish Market went from fiscal conditions better than all the restaurants in the District to the absolute worst.  The Mayor’s Office mandated the closure until “the operators will be able to present a plan for social distancing to DCRA [Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs]”, in effect until April 24, which at that time was the end-date for social distancing measures.

And, at this point, the stark contrast between the Tidal Basin and the Maine Avenue Fish Market should be readily apparent.  As I noted in the previous article, the closures at the Tidal Basin essentially affect one agency: the National Park Service (and perhaps some of its maintenance contractors) no doubt suffered a loss of work, though it remains unclear if they faced furlough conditions.  Meanwhile, the dozen or so private vendors at the Fish Wharf faced a complete injunction from normal enterprise, affecting approximately 150 workers, some of whom apparently didn’t get the word when they arrived that day.  It’s a sub-optimal situation from the City’s perspective, not only because it puts an end to the commerce that generates tax revenue but because it unquestionably pushes some of the city’s most established small businesses into a sudden state of hardship.

Fortunately, the vendors at the Fish Wharf did indeed work to develop a solution to keep their businesses alive. By the 7th—just three days later—they had collaborated on a plan for enforced social distancing, as well as a means of implementing it, which the City approved.  Barely 72 hours after a mandated closure, the fishy stench returned!carryout seafood at the Fish Wharf returns, under social distancing rules because of coronavirusJust in time for the start of crab season—one of the most popular carryout items here in crab country—the Maine Avenue Fish Market reemerges with a tangle of barricades and security guards to enforce the practice.IMG_2571IMG_2570IMG_2574The stipulations are harsh: regulatory signs everywhere, limiting grouping, and requiring face masks to enter the heart of the market.  It’s not vibrant looking, but things really shouldn’t look vibrant in the midst of a public health crisis.  I strongly suspect that these standards, which unequivocally slow the volume of sales, will negatively impact revenue for these vendors.  But it’s obviously better than being completely non-operational.

The COVID-19 fears that have gripped most of the world for the last two months will prompt a broader reassessment of how we spatialize ourselves for many years to come, not just in terms of major events and gatherings, but how we purchase small businesses.  The dire financial reports from even the luxury clothing market suggest that this may be the final nail in the coffin for the bricks-and-mortar sale of durable goods.  But non-durable, perishable goods have fared much better; much of the public remains skeptical of ordering groceries (especially produce) online, and restaurants remain a gray zone.  I have a sneaking suspicion that fast-casual operations have fared much better than sit-down restaurants with table service over these last few weeks, giving reason to believe that the Fish Wharf’s carryout approach could become the new paradigm for a number of businesses, especially if people remain hesitant to gather in large groups for many months to come.  But if COVID-19 proves as enduring and devastating as some believe, even the most nimble of carryout-oriented restaurants will suffer from social distancing restrictions: after all, these regulations hinder efficiency and elevate expectations for routine cleaning and disinfecting.  While most people would welcome improved cleanliness standards, few are aware how even a small drop in efficiency can destroy a restaurant’s fragile profit margin.  And the fact that the businesses at Maine Avenue Fish Market could easily coordinate a social distancing plan shows that most businesses are willing to work with the authorities to develop a compromise for operations, rather than shut down altogether.

As we phase the re-opening in the weeks ahead, we can hope that municipal leaders will approach other small businesses—not just carryout eateries, but service-oriented restaurants, retailers, and even places like hair/nail salons—with a similar spirit of compromise.  The full entrepreneurial fallout from this pandemic remains to be seen, but chances are good that it will require considerable negotiation between the regulatory arm of the public sector if the private sector is going to have a fair shot.  Much like Mayor Bowser’s handling of the carryout congregants at the Fish Wharf, actually.

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