Police to Start Enforcing Sidewalk Crowding Ordinance

(Updated at 3:15 p.m.) Starting tomorrow, standing in the wrong place with the wrong number of people could land you a warning from police.

Arlington County says it will begin enforcing its emergency sidewalk crowding ordinance — which makes standing in a group of more than three in designated zones a traffic infraction — on Friday.

This weekend verbal and written warnings will be issued. After that, police will start issuing fines of up to $100.

“We are serious about this,” Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz told members of the County Board on Tuesday. “I remain deeply frustrated with what I’m seeing in the community… This is not a game when you’re dealing with the public’s health.”

At issue is groups of young, often maskless bargoers bunched up in lines, waiting to enter popular — but capacity constrained — nightlife spots in Clarendon. Photos and first-hand accounts of the lines have circulated on social media, leading to an outcry that the Board responded to with an emergency ordinance passed on July 31.

The ordinance limits groups standing in line to no more than three people, spaced at least six feet apart from other groups and people in line, in certain areas.

The first phase of implementation includes four line-prone stretches in which the distancing will be enforced, identified via the county’s online social distancing complaint form, county staff said. There will be additional phases in the coming weeks to add new areas, including in portions of Crystal City, Schwartz said.

Police are placing signs and sidewalk markers in areas where the ordinance is being enforced, the County Board was told.

Thus far, efforts to get those in lines to distance to the county’s specifications have been met with mixed results: some compliance and some defiance.

“We have have seen quite a bit of defiance and hostility towards the security staff and officers, who are being flat out ignored,” said Arlington County Police Department bar and restaurant liaison Jim Mastoras. “We’re trying our best to keep the lines apart and keep people separated, as they need to be.”

Mastoras noted that businesses have been trying to comply with the rules. Outdoor beer garden The Lot, a frequent subject of photos of alleged overcrowding this summer, has two employees just assigned to monitoring the line, he said.

In addition to pandemic-era capacity restrictions, Mastoras said that lines have become an issue due to a rush of patrons into the Clarendon area between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., which may or may not be linked to the fact that D.C. and Montgomery County have stopped alcohol sales after midnight and 10 p.m., respectively.

“Over the past few weeks, we have seen an influx of patrons into the Clarendon area,” he said.

The ordinance is not without its critics, who question its implementation and prioritization over other public health risks.

“The ordinance appears to criminalize common behaviors: A plain reading of the ordinance would appear to prevent a family of four from walking down one of these signed sidewalks together without maintaining 6′ of distance between all family members, including small children,” wrote Arlington Transportation Commission Chair Chris Slatt earlier this month.

Schwartz called that line of criticism a “red herring,” suggesting that is not how the ordinance will be enforced.

The Arlington Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, is calling for the ordinance to be scrapped, citing concerns about enforcement and equity.

“The hastily developed ordinance has led to confusion and presents enforcement challenges,” the Chamber wrote this week. “The Chamber will continue to advocate that the County Board abandon this ordinance and find alternative, more constructive ways to promote social distancing.”

On the health side, experts agree that standing in line outside presents a risk, though it’s a risk that’s lower than equivalent behavior indoors.

Why, one may ask, are groups of more than three standing outside now prohibited, while larger groups are able to dine and chat maskless around a table inside restaurants? The latter is widely considered to be riskier behavior, albeit behavior that’s less likely to be photographed by those walking by.

Arlington Public Health Director Dr. Reuben Varghese spoke at Tuesday’s meeting and made the case for discouraging groups of people congregating within six feet. (Although, it should be noted, even the six foot wisdom is now being questioned as perhaps insufficient.)

“Congregation without six foot distances in a pandemic leads to germ spread,” Varghese said.

While Varghese showed a chart demonstrating that it is increasingly those in their 20s who are getting infected with COVID-19 in Arlington, he did not establish a solid link between those standing in lines outside and the recent rise in cases.

Instead, Varghese said that community-wide, asymptomatic contact of mostly unknown origin is leading to new cases.

“When we talk to cases, we try to identify: is there a known infection?” he said. “The vast majority do not have that… based on our local data, we have not been able to find the sources of those infections.”

Despite all the public health guidance regarding masks and distancing, Varghese argued that the safest practice during the pandemic is simply to stay at home.

“I am imploring people: keep at home as much as possible,” he said.

More on the ordinance’s implementation, from a county press release, is below.

Arlington’s vibrant nightlife scene continues to attract long lines of patrons waiting to enter popular restaurants, and with it, a growing concern for the spread of COVID-19.

There is community-wide transmission of COVID-19 in the National Capital Region, including Arlington. Groups of people congregating increases the risk of spread of the virus. Spread is more likely when people are in close contact with one another and staying for a period of time.

As part of the County’s efforts to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in our community, the County Board adopted an emergency ordinance prohibiting groups of more than three people from congregating and requiring pedestrians to maintain at least six feet of physical separation from others on posted streets and sidewalks. Following several weeks of public education, the County has installed physical distancing ordinance signage and will begin Phase I enforcement on Friday, August 28.

“We have taken time to roll out the physical distancing ordinance and are going to start enforcement this weekend,” said County Manager Mark Schwartz. “I remain deeply frustrated with what we are seeing in the community. My frustration is not with restaurants, but with patrons and open defiance of people standing outside these businesses. I anticipate that I will come back to the County Board with additional recommendations to take more actions if we cannot minimize the spread of this pandemic.”

Phase I Enforcement Locations 

Observations by the Arlington Restaurant Initiative staff and data from our online complaint tool regarding gatherings supports sign installation in the below locations within the Clarendon Neighborhood.

  • East side of 10th Street between the south side of Wilson Boulevard and N. Irving Street
  • North side of Wilson Boulevard between N. Irving and N. Hudson streets and west side of N. Hudson Street
  • North side of Wilson between N. Garfield and N. Fillmore streets and west side of N. Fillmore Street
  • South side of Wilson between N. Fillmore and N. Edgewood Street and east side of N. Fillmore Street

Arlington will continue to review the data over the coming weeks and additional areas of enforcement are anticipated. The County is working with businesses in the area to help patrons comply with the ordinance by placing sidewalk decals outside popular businesses.

Public Education and Enforcement Efforts

Arlington’s first priority continues to be focused on public education and voluntary compliance, even as enforcement begins. Since adoption of the ordinance, County Public Health Officials, the Police Department and Fire Marshal’s Office have been visiting Arlington establishments to provide education for businesses and patrons about the importance of physical distancing in an effort to build voluntary compliance.

The Police Department has planned a warning period over the weekend to help bring public awareness to the changes and encourage compliance through the issuance of verbal and written warnings for observed infractions. The warning period will also give business patrons an opportunity to become familiar with the newly designated areas. Violators are subject to a traffic fine of up to a $100 and citations will be issued at the completion of the weekend warning period.

While the signage is applicable at all times, enforcement will focus on nighttime hours of 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. when Arlington County has experienced significant crowding on public sidewalks, sometimes for prolonged periods of time.

As a reminder during the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone should practice social distancing, wear face coverings, wash their hands frequently, and stay home if they are sick.