Located on The Circle in Georgetown, The Counting House Restaurant & Pub banks on weddings, parties and lawyers’ events, especially during the holidays.
Not anymore. Owner Bill Clifton has few events on the books.
The Milford native, who trained at The French Laundry, understands that people could be skittish about COVID-19. But others are staying away due to the latest restrictions.
Beginning Monday, Dec. 14, at 8 a.m., Delaware bars and restaurants must close at 10 p.m. They are already operating at 30% capacity, and guests must be from the same household and wear masks at all times unless they are eating or drinking.
A frustrated Clifton said that restaurants are bearing the brunt of COVID-19-related business restrictions.
“There are so many businesses that don’t get touched or regulated,” the chef said. “Restaurants are always the scapegoat, and I feel it’s that way because there are so many independently owned restaurants — we don’t have the representation. It’s so easy to pick on someone when you don’t have a bully in your corner.”
He’d like a data-driven explanation from Gov. John Carney, who issued new guidelines on Dec. 10.
“I’m all about the science — I get it. I love it,” Clifton said. “I’m not an anti-masker. I believe this virus is real, but there needs to be communication. There’s none of that.”
Carney has said repeatedly he didn’t want to hurt restaurants, which saw huge business declines during the spring shut-down. And he has said that he didn’t want to impose curfews because of fears that parties would just move into private homes.
Jonathan Starkey, deputy chief of staff for communications in the governor’s office, said Friday that the business restrictions are intended to preserve hospital capacity and protect lives.
“We are seeing a significant surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that threatens to overwhelm our hospital systems this winter,” Starkey maintained. “Community spread of COVID-19 is more significant now than it was during our spring peak. This is a serious situation.”
Lisa DiFebo-Osias, the founder of DiFebo’s in Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach, doesn’t doubt it.
“I’m a rule-follower,” she said. “I will do whatever you tell me to do. Restaurants have been following guidelines since I opened in 1989. ‘Is my food up to temperature? Is my staff wearing a hairnet or head covering?’ Do I have a problem with the 30%? It is what it is. We follow the rules.”
But the longtime restaurateur does have a problem with the retailers and other businesses that do not make the extra effort or follow protocols.
“They’re the ones spreading this disease, not the restaurants,” said DiFebo-Osias, who has Carney’s office on speed dial.
Not surprisingly, restaurants would prefer to return to 60% capacity, although Clifton said even that is a hardship. Owners build their budgets on using every foot.
Meanwhile, the 10 p.m. curfew will create an issue for restaurants that offer late seatings, said Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association. Tables won’t flip as much frequently, which means lost income.
What’s more, the restrictions may drive people to socialize at home, where they don’t need to follow regulations, she added.
“I don’t think the restrictions are going to accomplish what our governor needs — and that’s reducing cases,” she said. “We’re not seeing the spread in restaurants, and we’re pushing people inside.”
Admittedly, other municipalities are taking a stricter stance. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott halted all indoor and outdoor dining. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf shut down indoor restaurant dining, high school sports, gyms and casinos for three weeks.
Sometimes Clifton would like to see a universal — and equal — shutdown
“Go ahead, just shut it all down. Just do it,” Clifton said. “Get it over with. We’ve got to focus on going forward, not back pedaling.
He knows many restaurant owners who are close to giving up. “A lot of them were hoping to make money during the holidays, and now that’s gone,” he said.
Restaurants need sustained help, owners say. A one-time financial package to help them temporarily pay the bills isn’t going to cut it.
“I can’t keep taking blow by blow by blow and come out all shiny in the end,” Clifton said. “It’s not going to happen.”