Many Delaware restaurant owners expressed dismay at the word that Gov. John Carney once again is reducing the number of diners who can eat inside, and imposing new mask-wearing rules for the ones who do.
On Monday, Nov. 23, Delaware will lower the indoor dining capacity in restaurants by half to slow the spike in COVID-19 cases. The new round of restrictions also includes limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings and youth sports.
Gov. John Carney said Tuesday during his weekly COVID-19 press conference that Delaware reported 344 new cases and 153 hospitalizations. The 5.5% positive testing percentage is the highest since June 10, and health officials say the number of cases is fueled by casual get-togethers, such as dining with friends.
Many restaurateurs are frustrated.
“A lot of us feel like we’ve done everything right, from social distancing to wearing masks to erecting partitions and installing air sanitizers,” said Xavier Teixido, owner of Harry’s Savoy Grill in Brandywine Hundred and co-owner of Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon in Trolley Square.
Alan Levin, a senior consultant for SoDel Concepts, would agree.
“The Delaware restaurants impacted by this decision have already taken a huge hit and have made Herculean efforts to deal with COVID,” Levin wrote in a Facebook post. “We have spent thousands of dollars erecting partitions between tables, removed seating, educated our staffs on COVID safety, and now, after we are just starting to get our feet on the ground, again the governor pulls the rug out from us.”
The reduced operating capacity is another hit to a hospitality industry still finding its footing after the governor closed dining rooms in March.
In June, restaurants began operating at 60% fire capacity indoors. Come Monday, that number drops to 30%, with allowances for outdoor seating. But in cold weather, there won’t be a lot of alfresco diners, many agreed.
What’s more, diners may remove face coverings only to eat or drink. They must wear them at all other times and when servers approach the table. Prior to that, they were able to take off masks when they sat at their table and only had to put them back on if they went to the bathroom or moved around.
“It’s not the fault of the restaurants,” Delaware Division of Public Health Director Karyl Rattay said during the briefing.
“The restaurants are doing a lot of hard work around hygiene,” she continued, “but the reality is that [the virus] is spread from respiratory droplets, and it’s hard to control that in a restaurant setting.”
David Dietz, owner of Brandywine BBC Tavern and Grill in Greenville, described the changes a “tough call” for the governor.
“He has to balance public safety without destroying businesses such as mine,” he said.
Due to spacing constraints, BBC Tavern was already at 30% indoor capacity. Fortunately, the establishment has a large covered patio with fire pits and heaters. Dietz plans to add more enclosed outdoor seating this week.
“I really feel for the restaurants that do not have as much outdoor seating as BBC,” he said. “This is going to be tough for them in an already tough situation.”
Tom Craft has a tight space for both indoor and outdoor dining.
“With no options to expand our outdoor seating, we are now limited to our small patio and must go from nine tables down to six inside,” said Craft, owner of 2FatGuys American Grill in Hockessin. “It’s definitely a blow for us.”
He noted that front-of-the-house personnel who depend on seated diners to make a living have been limping by on 60% capacity.
“This will no doubt push many back on unemployment,” he said.
Meanwhile, the holidays are coming. Teixido is anxious at the thought of canceling some Thanksgiving Day reservations to meet the new capacity requirement.
“Diners will say: ‘Harry’s used to be my go-to restaurant, but you’ll never see me again. You ruined my Thanksgiving,’” he said.
Takeout is no consolation, particularly if a restaurant uses a third-party vendor that charges 25-30% of the bill, Craft said.
“There are big companies getting rich at the expense of small businesses during a pandemic,” he maintained.
Scott Stein, an owner of Bardea Food & Drink in downtown Wilmington, appreciates grant programs like the DE Relief Grants program, funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
During the briefing, Carney said he expanded the program to provide up to $25 million in additional relief.
Stein would like to see more grants and support from the federal government for small businesses who’ve been “left outside to dry.”
As winter descends, Teixido — the former president of the National Restaurant Association — said many restaurateurs must decide if it’s better to stay open and keep losing money — with the occasional interlude of breaking even — or close.
Craft is an optimist.
“We will persevere and come out the other side along with our brothers and sisters in the industry,” he said.