Why restaurants are afraid to reopen during the coronavirus outbreak

The evening of March 14 seemed like a typical Saturday night at Annette, our 50-seat restaurant in Aurora. Our host greeted each guest, our general manager poured wine tableside, and our servers carefully maintained their sections, folding rumpled napkins, taking drink orders and clearing plates. Strangers and friends alike huddled together at the bar, and guests leaned into the open kitchen, eager to chat with us about their meal. In short, it seemed like an ordinary evening in a restaurant whose service relies on the human touch. By the end of the night, though, our lives had been turned upside down.

After service, the City of Aurora ordered Stanley Marketplace where Annette is located closed to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. That night, we laid off all of our hourly workers and began scrambling for a business model that would keep our guests and employees safe. We launched it two days later. Today, as coronavirus cases in the U.S. near their peak and the national conversation turns toward reopening, the measures we took to protect ourselves, our employees and our guests are under threat. Whatever the socially-distanced restaurants of the near future might look like (Dining rooms at half capacity? Hosts armed with thermometers? Servers wearing masks?), restaurants like ours will not be safe without widespread coronavirus testing.

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Over the last six weeks, we have done whatever we can to protect both our bottom line and the health of our community. Each morning, we check employees’ temperatures at the door. We mandate the use of masks and gloves, sanitize work surfaces repeatedly, and offer contact-free takeout and delivery to guests. We order food for employees through the restaurant to minimize their trips to the grocery store. And we are overbearing about their personal lives, demanding to know who their roommates are and what precautions they are taking to protect themselves.

When Caroline was growing up, her mother, Robin, was a certified germaphobe who wiped down restaurant tables herself, strictly policed handwashing and discouraged her children from touching door handles. In a sense, then, some of us have been training for this pandemic our whole lives. Yet even for Robin, our measures are extreme.

Unfortunately, they are not sufficient. Researchers at Harvard University recently argued that the U.S. will need to triple its rate of coronavirus testing by mid-May in order to reopen safely. That would allow people with even mild symptoms to be tested so that they could be quickly isolated and their contacts traced to stamp out future outbreaks. Achieving this means conducting at least 152 tests per 100,000 people each day across the country.

“I’m hoping that not just my family but yours can patronize restaurants in Colorado sometime in May,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis in an April 20 press conference. (The governor noted that he has been too busy to cook recently, so his family has been dining mainly on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.) Colorado, which currently tests about 26.5 people per 100,000, would need to more than quintuple that rate to reach the “safe testing” threshold identified by the Harvard researchers. If he falls short on testing, the governor is facing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as far as the eye can see.

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We know that testing is not a panacea. We do not expect our social and economic lives to fully return to normal without effective coronavirus treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine. Yet widely available coronavirus testing would allow our servers, cooks and dishwashers to be diagnosed and isolated at the first sign of symptoms, keeping fellow employees and guests safe. And antibody testing — while it cannot convey the extent of one’s coronavirus immunity — would at least tell employees whether they have had the disease, allowing them to work with far less fear and uncertainty. As the nation’s testing capacity increases, it is critical that workers in public-facing industries — from grocery store clerks to bus drivers to restaurant workers — are prioritized for coronavirus testing.

We often joke that our daily lives — ferrying from home to the restaurant and home again — are a sort of “Annette quarantine.” Why would we break that quarantine when the government has failed to provide us with the tests we need to keep our employees safe? Through takeout and delivery, we are earning about 50% of our normal revenues. Why would we put ourselves at risk just to reopen our dining room at half capacity and earn the same amount?

We suspect that, like us, many restaurants will elect to keep their dining rooms closed and their staff safe until the government can ramp up testing. Many states have introduced provisions to make takeout and delivery more financially viable for restaurants, including allowing the sale of alcohol for takeout, permitting restaurants to sell bulk foods and relaxing insurance requirements so we can employ our staff as delivery drivers. It is critical that these allowances be left in place until coronavirus testing is more widespread.

In the long run, of course, it will take more than testing to keep restaurants like ours alive. Most restaurants keep just enough cash on hand to operate for 15 days, so the costs of reopening — from paying vendors to restocking shelves to rehiring employees — are nearly insurmountable. What’s more, business will likely be down by at least 30% through 2021 as a shell-shocked public emerges slowly from quarantine and the government continues to limit restaurant capacity. The recovery and survival of independent restaurants depends on the establishment of a dedicated federal restaurant recovery fund.

In the early days of this pandemic, the government’s failure to quickly increase testing jeopardized our livelihoods. After all, the extreme social distancing measures that forced our businesses to close were only necessary in the absence of widespread testing. Moving forward, we cannot allow the government’s ongoing failure to jeopardize our lives as well. If state and federal politicians want us, the American people, to get back to doing our jobs, then first they must do theirs.

Just as cleanliness and hygiene are the cornerstones of any successful restaurant, widespread testing remains the key to any successful coronavirus response. Failure to achieve this will jeopardize the work that small business owners like us have done to protect ourselves, our staff and our communities. And it will forestall the day that we can finally get back to running a restaurant that relies on the human touch.

Caroline Glover and Nelson Harvey are the owners of Annette restaurant in Aurora, Colo. They are members of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is working to help independent restaurants survive the coronavirus pandemic, and encourage people to visit SaveRestaurants.com for more information on how to ask Congress to take action.

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