Restaurants during covid

Signs outside of home.made, Saucehouse BBQ and Pulaski Heights instruct customers. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach)

As restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic were lifted, Athens restaurants that had temporarily closed or moved to takeout faced new questions. Welcome customers to dine-in? Add patio service? Or stay in lockdown mode?

Now, as coronavirus cases surge across the country, restaurants that began reopening face the dilemma of whether to carry on with reopening plans or scale back. Almost all face financial pressures that show no sign of receding as cases rise.

Cases have risen in 41 states after governors moved to reopen their economies, and the U.S. reached 3.5 million infections on July 15. Athens restaurant owners are caught trying to negotiate a balance between safety and keeping their businesses afloat.

As of July 16, Clarke County had 1,087 cases, or 839 per 100,000 people. The rate of new cases in Athens more than doubled the week of June 29, then doubled again the week of July 6. While this increase in new cases might have plateaued, that rate is still north of 200 new cases per week.

On Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order extended restrictions until July 31. Kemp’s new order also explicitly restricted cities and counties from mandating masks, even as more than 20 states now require masks in public — including Alabama, as of July 16. Athens-Clarke County had passed a mask mandate that went into effect July 9.

Minimizing exposure

Throughout the pandemic, Pulaski Heights BBQ owner Chuck Ramsey opted to stick with takeout orders only. Ramsey doesn’t believe limited dine-in is wise and wants to minimize employee exposure as much as possible.

The business is suffering but managing to tread water — with seven of 15 employees working, Ramsey said the restaurant is barely breaking even, and certainly not making a profit.

Spring is typically the busiest time of the year for PHBBQ’s catering sales — the Twilight Criterium is big, and graduation parties and weddings abound. Those events fell through this year, but Ramsey said adapting his business model may have been easier than it was for others.

“We were already in a good position to transition to takeout only,” Ramsey said. “Our food travels well.”

Plus, catering was never the bedrock of PHBBQ. Restaurants that relied heavily on catering are faring poorly, he said. Looking ahead, Ramsey said the restaurateurs he talks to are looking toward football season, the most profitable time for Athens restaurants, with bated breath.

After offering takeout only, Emily Ullrich, the owner of Em’s Kitchen, briefly expanded to limited dine-in service. But on July 6, after seeing cases spike, Ullrich decided to close the Hawthorne Avenue restaurant’s dining room. There were no positive cases reported by staff or customers, but Ullrich made the move out of caution.

Ullrich said in an email that Em’s Kitchen continues to be busy with curbside pickup orders, but paused their dine-in service after observing the local surge.

“I decided it was not worth it to be one of those businesses putting its employees and patrons at risk,” Ullrich said.

Restaurant risk factors

Response to the pandemic has disrupted restaurant operations. Some restaurants closed temporarily as they tested staff or implemented new processes. Saucehouse Barbecue, for example, reopened this week after a temporary closure to add sanitizing stations and other updates. Downtown sushi restaurant Shokitini announced last week it would close indefinitely, citing safety concerns, and planned to test all of its employees for COVID-19.

Research on the risks of dining point to a correlation between restaurant attendance and COVID-19 cases.

According to CNBC, a JPMorgan study that examined data from 30 million Chase credit card users alongside case tracking from Johns Hopkins University found increased restaurant spending in a given state was a strong predictor of cases rising weeks later. The report noted that in-person spending at restaurants was “particularly predictive” of a case increase.

The Texas Medical Association, the largest state medical association in the country, rated eating inside a restaurant a 7/10 risky activity for contracting COVID-19, on par with attending a wedding or funeral, shaking hands, playing football, going to a hair salon or flying on a plane. Getting takeout, on the other hand, scored only a 2/10 for riskiness, comparable to playing tennis.

Mimi Maumus, owner and founder of Southern restaurant home.made, closed her establishment due to health risks and financial trouble at the end of May.

When lockdown first began, Maumus was forced to lay off 21 employees. Two weeks of catering events were cancelled, and the restaurant transitioned to curbside pickup only. During that period, home.made experimented with family-sized meals and tried adding dinner service (curbside was limited to lunch at first), but it wasn’t enough. Catering had represented about 40% of the restaurant’s revenue.

'This is your income, this is your future'

Ramsey and Maumus both referenced a surge in takeout orders and community support in the first few weeks of lockdown this spring. Ramsey said local offices placed large takeout orders or bought food to give to the homeless. At home.made, people were buying $500 gift certificates. But over time, that sense of urgency to support local businesses seems to have waned, and sales have gone down.

Maumus’s employees who were still working were unable to quarantine completely due to their jobs, and therefore limited in visiting family. And though she secured a federal PPP loan to help with payroll costs, many of her workers were making more claiming unemployment, and didn’t want to return to work.

Maumus and her team considered doing limited dine-in, as some restaurants have tried, but didn’t think it was safe. Neither home.made nor PHBBQ have any confirmed cases among their employees, according to their respective owners.

“I'm not comfortable from a moral standpoint, participating in something that could make people sick,” Maumus said. “This industry is staffed by people who mostly don't have health insurance.”

Maumus recently visited a relative in California, taking extra precautions during travel and her stay. The only time she didn’t feel safe was when she took her mask off to eat, despite not going to any restaurants.

“It’s impossible — people want to have conversations, they're eating, they're drinking. Part of the service of a restaurant is the atmosphere and giving people a space,” Maumus said.

Maumus doesn’t know if home.made will see the other side of the pandemic. She’s still paying rent, bank loans and utility bills. She has insurance for the business, but it doesn’t cover a pandemic. So she understands why other business owners are doing everything they can to stay open and provide a safe experience.

“This is your income, this is your future, and you want to do anything you can to make sure it has a heartbeat,” Maumus said.

Rachel Larson contributed to this article