On Black Friday, Carrie Leishman was shopping at the Christiana Mall with her 21-year-old daughter when she turned the corner and saw red.
People were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder without masks in the packed food court.
It was a far cry from the socially distanced dining rooms that many Delaware restaurant owners had posted on Facebook the night before Thanksgiving.
Fearing super spreader “homecoming” events, the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services had warned restaurants that they’d be penalized for infractions if they overstepped their 30% capacity, based on the fire code, or skipped COVID-19 precaution protocols.
“There would be no warnings issued; they would levy fines,” said Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.
But at the mall, she saw “this, that and everything in-between” when it came to flaunting COVID-19 safety regulations.
The indignant Leishman snapped a photo with her smartphone and sent it to board members, including Gianmarco Martuscelli of Martuscelli Restaurant Group, which owns La Casa Pasta and Klondike Kate’s in Newark, as well as the Chesapeake Inn Restaurant and Marina in Chesapeake City, Maryland.
Martuscelli posted the photo on Facebook.
“Somebody has to speak up for us, and it can’t always be Carrie,” he said.
He wrote: “Please explain how this is ok but dining in a restaurant you need 6ft, barricades, plexiglass etc. If this is about slowing the spread than there should be a TOTAL SHUTDOWN! There should be no picking and choosing. Everything should be closed or limited capacity. … Will all these people answer the contact tracers in a couple of weeks “yes I ate at a restaurant or will they say they were eating in a mall food court?”
The post was shared more than 2,000 times and received 150,000 impressions. Martuscelli’s post alone had 393 comments.
The restaurateur shared his comments at 3:19 p.m. By 12:08 p.m. the next day, DHSS reposted the photo with a response:
“DHSS and the Division of Public Health are aware of photos like the one here showing the food court at Christiana Mall on Friday. Public Health inspectors were in potential areas of concern Friday, including the Christiana and Concord malls and the outlets at the beach. The food courts at the malls are subject to the same 30 percent capacity limit to which restaurants are subject. While the Christiana Mall food court may have been technically under that limit, health officials are concerned about the volume of people they saw on Friday. In response, starting today, seating in the food courts will be capped at 100 people.”
Leishman and Martuscelli maintain that they were not calling out the Christiana Mall. Instead, they wanted to illustrate that restaurants nationwide are restricted differently than other industries, including retail.
“We are losing holiday parties left and right that get our staff through January and February, which are the slowest months of the year,” Martuscelli said. “It is a scary time for restaurant owners because we really need December.”
Restaurants had been operating at 60% capacity as of June. That changed on Monday, Nov. 23, when Gov. John Carney lowered restaurants’ indoor dining capacity by half.
What’s more, diners must wear face coverings at all times unless they are eating or drinking.
Judging by the cancellations and the empty dining rooms, the spotlight on the hospitality industry has shaken public confidence.
“Our curbside carryout is doing OK, but it’s not carrying the business,” Martuscelli said.
Some comments to his post noted that there is a difference between the industries. For instance, people in retail stores wear masks for their entire visit — they aren’t spending as much time in the building as diners spend at the table.
But shoppers touch merchandise repeatedly, Leishman noted. There’s no way for staff to sanitize each screwdriver or box of rice after each person’s visit.
Restaurants, however, follow a strict cleaning procedure when tables turn over.
Martuscelli, who would like to see the capacity limit back at 60%, said he posted the photo to put a real voice behind the issue.
“If three or four months from now a lot of us have to close, I would regret not having said anything,” he said. “At least we tried.”