Restaurant owners say closing dining rooms will hurt

Last call came early Friday.

At five minutes until 5 p.m., Gary Rison walked through the bar at DJ’s Steakhouse, letting customers know it was time to leave unless they wanted to take their food and drinks outside — governor’s orders.

Faced with an alarming rise in coronavirus infections in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear last week issued a new mandate that included closing indoor dining rooms and bars effective at 5 p.m. Friday. The new rules remain in effect through 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 13.

Drive-throughs will still be open at fast food chains, but for restaurants like DJs, the options are limited to carry-out and eating outside at a time of year when it’s seldom warm.

“Financially, it’s going to hurt us,” Rison said.

The first time the governor closed the dining rooms, in the spring, customers were supportive, Rison said.

“We probably ran 60 to 65 percent of our normal sales” because of an increase in to-go orders, he said.

“This time, I’m a little more concerned. People may not want to eat out anymore. They’re probably as tired of it as I am,” he said.

The same day the new regulations were put in place, Kentucky had its highest ever single-day COVID-19 count: 3,825. More than 150,000 Kentuckians have had the often deadly disease.

The governor warned that if he didn’t implement “surgical” measures to slow the spread of the virus, hospitals might be overrun and there wouldn’t be enough doctors and nurses to care for all the COVID patients who are sick.

“I have no doubt there is a major issue medically, especially with compromised persons. I don’t think that this particular way of trying to control it is effective,” Rison said. “I don’t agree with this. I think it’s a Band-Aid.”

Rison said he would maybe be “on board with this” if department stores and other businesses that have more customers indoors were subject to strict new regulations as well, but he thinks singling out restaurants and bars will hurt those businesses without having a significant impact on controlling the rapid spread of the respiratory illness.

Restaurants were already suffering. Just before the new mandate took effect, they were limited to 50 percent capacity and six feet of spacing between tables or groups of people. That meant DJs was limited to 66 people in its dining room and bar. And in November, eating outside isn’t as attractive an option as it is in the spring.

“It’s challenging,” he said.

When Beshear announced his new executive order, he also said that he was making $40 million in CARES Act money available to locally owned restaurants and taverns to offset their losses, with the maximum amount per entity being $20,000. The application period is Nov. 30 to Dec. 18.

Robert Pritchett, co-owner of Bargains on Broadway across town from DJs, said he will apply for the money. But he and his wife applied for a CARES Act forgivable loan in the spring and didn’t get a dime.

It’ll be hard, but Pritchett thinks they’ll make it.

The family business is a retailer, auction house and diner.

“We’re just going to make the retail store larger to offset what we’re losing back in the restaurant,” he said.

“Last time this happened, we dropped about 25 or 30 percent,” he said, so they’ll try to make up the difference this time in retail and auctions, and make other adjustments, such as offering breakfast to go until 3 p.m.

Bargains’ cafe is usually crowded at lunchtime, but on Saturday around noon, there were only two men eating at a little table outside. Inside, Pritchett’s sister had to tell an older man who was trying to pull down a chair that he couldn’t do that.

At the counter, though, Pritchett’s brother and another worker were busy grilling burgers and making up to-go orders.

“I understand what he’s doing,” Pritchett said, when asked if he agreed with the governor’s actions. But, he said, he isn’t convinced that restaurants are bigger spreaders of the virus than other businesses. “I think restaurants are being picked on,” he said.

Most of those who work at Bargains are family members, and Pritchett said whether he gets the government assistance or not, he’s going to try to keep everybody on the payroll and working for the three weeks that the dining room will be shut down.

“I feel like this time, now, if you laid somebody off, by the time they received their unemployment or anything like that, Christmas is over,” he said. “We’re prepared to lose money to keep everybody employed.”

About Randy Patrick

Randy Patrick is a reporter for Bluegrass Newsmedia, which includes The Jessamine Journal. He may be reached at 859-759-0015 or by email at randy.patrick@bluegrassnewsmedia.com.

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