Socially-distanced diners outside Merroir along the Rappahannock. Photo: Merroir/Facebook

Va. Waterfront Comes Back to Life

Shucked oysters, draft beers, and relaxing on the beach are just some of the things that were temporarily out of reach because of COVID19 safety precautions. On the Virginia waterfront, they’re finally back.

Phase 1 of “Forward Virginia,” Governor Northam’s reopening plan, began on May 15 for most of the state (except for Richmond and the Eastern Shore’s Accomack County, whose local leaders requested exemption delaying Phase 1 to at least May 28.)  

Yorktown’s Riverwalk Landing Piers, a typically bustling waterfront, is slowly coming back online. Businesses are opening their doors to the public under the safety measures required under Phase 1. The city reports that hotels and other lodging options are starting to take reservations, and restaurants are welcoming limited numbers of guests in their outdoor seating areas. Riverwalk Restaurant Operations Manager Jamie Albertson says she’s already seeing success:

“We have seen a huge influx of support from guests excited to see us back open, especially on beautiful days here at the waterfront,” says Albertson. “Guests are generally happy to be out of the house, enjoying the food, the view, a pint, and the company (safely socially distanced 6 feet) around them.”

Riverwalk Landing photo: Visit Yorktown/Facebook

For those excited to get active on and near the water, Yorktown says those activities are gradually becoming available again, too.   

“Outdoor recreation rentals have begun as well, including paddle board, bicycle, and kayak rentals. The Riverwalk is also open to walking, bicycling, and jogging, as long as visitors maintain appropriate space between themselves and others.”

The Yorktown Fishing Pier is open to no more than 10 people at a time, six feet apart. Transient and recreational boaters are also welcome to dock and take advantage of the waterfront’s shops and pick-up food options.

Although Yorktown Beach and most beaches in the Commonwealth remain closed, Virginia Beach is up and running with a few modifications. 

The governor’s office has announced that swimming, surfing, and sunbathing now have the green light along the city’s Bay and ocean beaches, but no more than 10 individuals can gather, social distancing rules apply, and group sports are prohibited. The city says that beach ambassadors will be on site to help visitors maintain social distance and follow other safety regulations. 

In a conference with Governor Northam, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer said staying safe is critical while enjoying the shared waterfront spaces. 

“We must not take this opportunity for granted. It’s up to each of us to be safe and proactive when visiting our beaches. Whether you want to exercise, take advantage of the mental health benefits the ocean and fresh air provides, or enjoy a relaxing day with family or friends, we look forward to having people back to the beach—at a distance of at least six feet. Since we have 28 miles of ocean and bay beaches, there’s plenty of room to spread out.” 

A number of waterfront restaurants are now welcoming patrons, also with modifications. While curbside and carry out only were available as the pandemic unfolded, Phase 1 allows for outdoor dining with only 50% occupancy.

Travis Croxton, co-owner of Merroir and the Rappahannock Oyster Company in Topping, says the restaurant’s newly-renovated outdoor seating area lends itself to the new requirements. Customers can walk up to place their orders, sip on a drink at one of the many outdoor tables, then enjoy their meal on the banks of the Rappahannock. 

Croxton says that Merroir has seen “decent numbers” since restrictions have relaxed and that as guests began to return to get a bite, “everyone was kind of in their own zone, but there were people all around.” Transient boaters are also welcome to tie up and enjoy a meal dockside. Although Merroir’s menu is missing crab cakes at the moment due to the scarcity of crab meat, there is some good news; the restaurant just started shucking oysters for its patrons. 

In southside Hampton Roads, things have also started getting back to normal at Big Woody’s. With three regional locations including its flagship in Great Bridge, Chesapeake on the Elizabeth River, the popular restaurant and bar is getting back on its feet after closing its doors and laying off more than 100 employees.

Co-owner Jeff Leroy says the Great Bridge location, which reopened just before Memorial Day weekend, is excited to safely welcome back patrons. Keeping tables six feet apart and constant sanitizing are things the restaurant is doing to make things work. It’s “not only honoring the government’s guidelines, but it’s also for people’s safety,” Leroy says. “It’s a game changer.”

As for Big Woody’s Memorial Day weekend turnout, Leroy was very encouraged by what he saw. 

“When we opened on Thursday, we did not put a time limit on tables, but the demand was so [high] that we realized we had to in order to serve as many guests as possible. The support from the community and our customers was overwhelming to say the least.”

Laura Adams Boycourt