When novel coronavirus cases at the Delaware beaches spiked in early summer, Gov. John Carney closed the bars in eastern Sussex County restaurants.
Independence Day visitors saw a sight they never imagined: empty bar seats.
But on Thursday — even as the state warned about rising numbers and hinted about possible future restrictions — Carney revised the omnibus state of emergency order to lift the restrictions.
He warned in a press release that even thought he was doing so, the “fight against COVID-19 is not over.”
“While we are easing these outbreak-related restrictions at the beach, Delaware and visitors should stay vigilant,” he said.
“Those were targeted restrictions at the beach, put in place to manage a significant increase in cases in late June, early July and throughout the busy summer season,” said Jon Starkey, Carney’s spokesman, in a text Friday. “The crowds are obviously much smaller now, and the change just makes the COVID-19 restrictions at the beach consistent with the restrictions on bars and restaurants statewide.”
Critics of the summer-long beach bar ban note that Carney made the changes after winning re-election this week.
Carney is considering restrictions statewide because of rising cases, Starkey said.
“That’s a separate issue from whether we have a specific outbreak at the beach, among younger people going to bars and restaurants, as we did this summer,” he said.
The number of Delaware cases are rising as they are around the country as it gets colder and people spend more time indoors, also raising hospitalizations statewide.
“The governor will consider new restrictions if that becomes necessary to reduce the spread, based on advice from public health experts,” Starkey said. “We know what works. Wear a mask. Socially distance. Avoid gatherings. Wash your hands frequently. The governor also will keep delivering that message.”
Carney’s modification “restores the bar seating to what it was prior to July 1 and levels the playing field for … bar seating as it is allowed in Kent and New Castle counties,” explained Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.
Restaurant owners are glad they have a chance to add more seats; restaurants are still limited to 60% overall capacity.
“My only comment is everything — anything —helps at this point,” said Eric Sugrue, managing partner of Rehoboth Beach-based Big Fish Group, which owns nearly 20 establishments in Delaware.
“Being able to add some diners to our locations is needed, so hopefully the new order, removing some restrictions, helps us out a bit,” he said.
“Hopefully more diners will see comfort with eating inside as time goes on — no matter what the restrictions or guidelines are.”
Clint Wagner, regional manager for Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, which has a Rehoboth location, said, “It’s been hard to explain to people who are coming from other states why they can’t sit at the bar but can sit at a table.”
Now that’s no longer the case.
There must be 6 feet between households, for instance, and bar customers must be seated. If they move around the restaurant, they must wear masks.
All summer, there was confusion regarding the restrictions. Many diners equated a “beach bar” to an entire establishment.
However, the closure applied only to the bar area. Alcoholic drinks were still available to customers seated at tables.
Some credit the government’s language regarding the closures for the confusion.
“This was one of the biggest misconceptions communicated from the governor’s office this past summer,” Leishman said.
Business at the bars returned to the beach before Labor Day under certain conditions. Bar seat reservations were required, and bar customers had to order food.
As of this week, a food order and reservations are not necessary.
“We have been advocating for this since early August,” Leishman said. “We have fought for every inch, multiple times a week.”
Wagner said he feels for establishments such as taverns that bank on bar business for the bulk of their income.
He also sympathizes with the bar staff who’ve suffered during the limitations.
“Having the bar back is a big sigh of relief for our bartenders,” he said.
Wagner also oversees restaurants in Pennsylvania, which has had much tighter restrictions. He says it’s up to Rehoboth operators to follow the rules and keep people safe.
“We’re all in this together,” he said.