The atmosphere of the downtown Bethesda restaurant scene may be affected by a state health code that requires restaurants to screen or close their windows, some restaurant managers say.
The state health code, which is enforced by county health officials and based on a federal regulation, requires the screening in order to "eliminate rodents, flies, roaches, and other vermin from the building." It's not new, but it first came to the attention of the downtown Bethesda restaurant community as the American Tap Room was getting ready to open last month, according to Ken Hartman, director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center. Like many other restaurants in downtown Bethesda, along with downtown Rockville and Silver Spring, the American Tap Room was designed with broad windows that open out on to the street. Some say the open, airy feeling of having restaurants open on to the street lends a European atmosphere to the downtown.
The American Tap Room screened their windows to comply with the code, Hartman said. But with many Bethesda restaurants with large windows designed to open in nice weather – some nearly floor-to-ceiling -- some say the code may force restaurant owners to keep their windows and doors closed rather than incur the expense of screening.
"It's going to change the feeling of Bethesda," said Simon Hewson, general manager of Ri Ra Irish Pub and restaurant liaison with the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce. "It's not going to have as open a feeling, it's going to have a real closed-in feeling, literally, because [restaurants] are not going to be able to open our doors or windows."
Hewson said he can't afford to screen two bay windows at Ri Ra, and so he'll opt to keep them closed to comply with the code. "We have two nice bay windows, one at either end of the pub," Hewson said. "I used to open them during the summer so people could listen to the music we have, but I can't do that now. [The screening] is an expense I can't incur."
About 40 restaurants, mostly in downtown Bethesda, Rockville and Silver Spring will be affected, Hartman said. Of those, 25 are in Bethesda.
At the Montgomery County Council Tuesday, county health officer Ulder Tillman brought the issue to the attention of councilmembers. "We are working with the restaurants," Tillman said. "We know that they will need to comply – they can actually comply simply by shutting the windows. They are concerned about the economic burdens of doing this, but if they just close the windows there is no economic impact."
Tillman said county health officials were working with local regional services centers to get the word out to restaurants about coming into compliance.
"I know this will not shock you – I have heard from some of my Bethesda restaurant folks saying, 'OMG, are you kidding me,'" said Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1).
Tillman emphasized the importance of the code for helping keep vermin out of restaurants. "That has been a longstanding public health practice that you want to minimize rodents and insects getting into food preparation areas," Tillman said.
While some had discussed possible legislative change, that would prove difficult since the code is based on federal law, Tillman said.
Tillman told councilmembers the code is "really not a light matter" because penalties include fines and even jail time. Hartman emphasized that county officials' first priority was getting the word out to restaurants so they can make the choice between screening or keeping their windows shut. "No one's going to show up with a ticket book and start writing fines tomorrow," Hartman said.
"It's a question of how do we deal with it, because it's not going to go away," Hewson said. "Some restaurants will choose not to open their windows, which is pretty sad. But unfortunately, the law is the law and we have to comply with it."