South Carolina restaurants weigh how to reopen as coronavirus pandemic simmers
When you ask Lori Nelsen how she feels about reopening restaurants in South Carolina, she pauses and takes a deep breath, then lets forth a little laugh.
“That feels good, except you don’t know if you’re only doing 25 or 30% of the business you were doing before," Nelsen said. "Can you support a restaurant?”
Nelsen, who along with her business partner, David Porras, owns Oak Hill Café & Farm in Greenville, has been feeling mixed emotions these days. At first, there was anxiety related to having to close her restaurant and having to lay off about 24 employees. She also had to move the restaurant founded on artistic plating and delicately balanced flavors to a grocery and takeout model.
Then, anxiety about getting federal aid through the CARES Act crept in. The aid could help but is complicated and brings stipulations.
Now, Nelsen and Porras are worried about reopening their restaurant.
As Gov. Henry McMaster moves toward reopening the state’s economy, focus has turned to the nearly 200,000 eating and drinking establishments in South Carolina.
A proposal from the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association mapped out a plan for reopening restaurants as soon as Monday. The plan would allow highly monitored outdoor dining first and then phase in limited-capacity indoor dining by May 18, according to the SCRLA website, before easing social distancing restrictions in a third phase.
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Still, many restaurant owners, while eager to reopen, are struggling with how to do so.
Concerns about safety for both staff and patrons are top of mind.
Josh Beeby, who owns three restaurants in Greenville — Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria, The Trappe Door and The Burrow — said many of his employees have concerns.
Beeby has been watching the already-enacted reopening in Georgia carefully.
“I think what they’re doing in Georgia is insane, and if we follow suit, I’d have to weigh the options,” Beeby said. “I need to get open, but I also don’t need to put anyone in danger.”
Beeby wants to see authorities in South Carolina provide clear safety guidelines for restaurants.
“I think that makes it easier, and it makes people feel safer," he said. "But if they say it’s up to owners’ discretion, it could be mass chaos.”
The proposal from SCRLA provided some standard ideas, including enhanced employee safety training and enhanced sanitization procedures along with guidelines for having customers wait for tables outside restaurants or inside cars.
One South Carolina community has already decided to allow restaurants to begin serving patrons at outside tables starting today, even though McMaster has yet to lift the ban for on-premises dining that went into effect March 18.
At least some of the 300 restaurants in the town of Irmo were expected to open for dinner on Friday. Irmo, which has a population of about 13,000, is east of Lake Murray.
Mayor Barry Walker said the town council voted Thursday to allow outdoor dining as part of an effort to prevent restaurants and other businesses from failing. He said his town relies heavily on fees from business licenses to provide services to residents.
“The reason why we went ahead and did it is because quite frankly they pulled the rug from underneath all of our restaurants and businesses in town by locking them down and saying they couldn’t open,” Walker said. “But they never locked down the Home Depot or the grocery stores.”
Walker said restaurants that do provide outdoor dining will be required keep tables six feet apart and follow other coronavirus guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as existing state health rules.
“We didn’t pass it willy-nilly,” Walker said.
Some restaurant owners in Greenville also feel ready to reopen now.
Summer Lee, who opened Flying Biscuit Café in downtown Greenville in December, said she was eager to get her restaurant reopened, and she felt confident that she could do so safely.
Lee had to lay off staff, and she said the sooner she has a date for reopening, the sooner she can start retraining and in some cases rehiring staff.
“If they are going to open retail and open the malls and people have been able to go in the grocery store, it doesn’t make sense that people can’t come into a restaurant where everything is cleansed and sanitized and eat their meal,” Lee said.
Right now in the COVID-19-modified world banning in-restaurant dining, Lee estimated it cost her $15,000 a month to stay open, more than she is bringing in in revenue. There is an urgency, she said, to at least begin the process of reopening.
At Oak Hill, Nelsen and Porras are moving cautiously. Theirs is a small restaurant situated in an old house. The dining areas are spread within the home’s rooms, offering an intimate feel, but one that might feel odd in this time.
The two don’t see reopening by Monday or even by May 18, but they are taking each moment as it comes and reassessing constantly.
The reality, they said is that restaurants won’t be “normal” again until there is a vaccine. That could be 12-18 months, according to some sources.
“It’s going to be a new normal,” Porras said. “But what is that?”