COVID-19 restrictions have become life-threatening for restaurants, and it’s leading to some extreme measures by those who make their living serving meats and veggies.
When Gov. Andy Beshear said last week that Kentucky bars and restaurants must cease through Dec. 13 all indoor food and beverage consumption as a way of slowing the growth of the coronavirus, reactions from eateries were as varied as the offerings at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Some, like downtown-area establishments Mariah’s, 6-4-3 Bar & Grill and Teresa’s Restaurant decided to close up shop, at least temporarily.
Through a social media post, Teresa’s owner Heather McGuffey gave a glimpse into the predicament all food merchants face after Beshear’s order.
“We will be closing for the next three weeks, and this was a decision that was not made lightly,” the post read. “There are many factors to our decision, but we feel it’s the right one for us. I wish all the small restaurants and bars all the luck and prayers for the next several weeks.”
But as the sudden appearance of open-sided tents in the parking lots of local restaurants attests, not all those in the food-serving business are shutting down their sit-down business.
One of those tents went up at the Smokey Bones barbecue restaurant on Scottsville Road, where General Manager Casey Turner said the company got a building permit and had a tent ready for when the governor’s order took effect Friday.
“We got the ball rolling pretty early,” she said. “We rented the tent to keep from having to lay off staff.”
With 14 tables in the heated tent and more outdoor seating available on the patio, Turner said Smokey Bones stayed busy over the weekend.
“It was just a little slower than normal,” she said.
Smokey Bones was hardly the only local restaurant erecting a temporary seating area.
Mellow Mushroom on Chestnut Street pitched a tent Friday as well, and local franchise owner Bob Holderfield said that covered patio gives him room for about 50 patrons, even with social distancing.
Between that and the carryout orders the pizza place had already been doing, Holderfield said he has “for the most part been able to keep our employees working.”
Holderfield said restaurateurs have been able to take advantage of a gray area in Beshear’s order.
“His order was pretty vague (on outdoor dining),” Holderfield said.
Aware of the tents being erected at local restaurants, Barren River District Health Department Marketing and Communications Coordinator Ashli McCarty said those that have so far been inspected by the department have passed muster.
“According to state guidance, at least two sides of the tent must remain open and there must be 6 feet between tables,” McCarty said. “The places we’ve visited have done what they need to do to be compliant.”
Al fresco dining underneath a temporary covering isn’t unique to Bowling Green as a way around the governor’s order, according to the Kentucky Restaurant Association.
“Tents are something that’s going on all over the state,” said Stacy Roof, the association’s president. “I think it helps, but it depends on the type of operation. Some don’t have the ability to do that.”
Or the inclination.
Vilson Qehaja, owner of Anna’s Greek Restaurant on State Street, said he won’t be putting up a tent, both for logistical and epidemiological reasons.
“Even with a tent, you’re still spreading germs,” Qehaja said. “Small mom-and-pop places can’t really afford to do that. I won’t do that. Putting people outside in a tent doesn’t make sense to me.”
Not much about Beshear’s order makes sense to another restaurant owner, Lost River Pizza’s Keith Coffman.
“It’s not ideal by any means,” Coffman said. “I don’t understand how it makes sense to shut down restaurants and yet allow other retail establishments to stay open.
“I understand this is something we need to take seriously, but this (order) makes it hard to run a business and make your debt obligations. I hate laying off employees. That’s one of the worst feelings in the world.”
Coffman said Lost River Pizza will continue to operate with carryout and drive-through orders, but he said shutting down indoor dining that had already been limited by pandemic protocols is a huge blow.
“When you close your dining room and the area of alcohol sales, it’s going to affect your bottom line,” he said.
Qehaja, who is also continuing with takeout and delivery only, feels his fellow restaurant owners’ pain.
“The county has just increased my property tax bill, and I’m supposed to pay that,” he said. “How am I supposed to come up with the money if I’m closed?
“Whoever makes these decisions doesn’t have an understanding of what it takes to run a small business.”
The restaurant association’s Roof pointed out that Beshear’s order does include an opportunity for restaurants to apply for $10,000 grants that will be available Nov. 30.
“For most operations, that doesn’t go far,” Roof admitted.
In the meantime, Coffman fears that restaurants like his could be hemorrhaging red ink for months.
“The order said this would go through Dec. 13, but I won’t be surprised if it’s not extended to February or March,” Coffman said.
That could lead to some shuttered businesses, according to Roof, unless the federal government passes legislation giving relief specifically to the restaurant industry.
“I hope that’s being negotiated,” she said of a bill that would establish a Restaurant Revitalization Fund.
Without such relief, Roof worries that dining options may soon dwindle.
“Before the pandemic we had 7,700 restaurant locations in the state, and they did $9 billion in revenue last year,” she said. “I don’t know how many have closed. I know some have closed permanently.”
– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdailynews.com.