Frustrated restaurant owners brace for another hit with new restrictions

Outdoor patio at Benvenuto Tuscan restaurant in Milford, DE.

Many Delaware restaurant owners expressed dismay at the word that Gov. John Carney once again is reducing the number of diners who can eat inside, and he is imposing new mask-wearing rules for the ones who do.

On Monday, Nov. 23, Delaware will lower the indoor dining capacity in restaurants to 30% of the fire occupancy to slow the spike in COVID-19 cases. The new round of restrictions also includes limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings and youth sports.

Carney said Tuesday during his weekly COVID-19 press conference that Delaware reported 344 new cases and 153 hospitalizations. The 5.5% positive testing percentage is the highest since June 10, and health officials say the number of cases is fueled by casual get-togethers, such as dining with friends.

Many Milford restaurateurs are frustrated and feel that their industry is being singled out.

“It seems like everyone is pointing at us as though we’re the main culprit,” said Ramsey Schrader, a partner of Arena’s Deli & Bar. “But we follow the very specific guidelines from public health, and that includes distancing tables, cleaning and this that and everything else. It’s a little hard to swallow when you are doing everything you need to do.”

The hospitality industry is still finding its footing after the governor closed dining rooms in March. Restaurants were limited to takeout.

In June, restaurants began operating at 60% fire capacity indoors. Come Monday, that number drops to 30%, with allowances for outdoor seating.

In warmer weather, outdoor seating was a boon for restaurants like Arena’s, which is nestled against the Mispillion River.

Likewise, many diners have enjoyed eating beside the heaters and the fireplace on Benvenuto’s patio, which Johnson plans to decorate to resemble a “winter wonderland.”

Admittedly, many customers won’t want to sit outside when the temperatures drop.

“The weather is getting colder and colder, and it doesn’t matter whether there’s a heater or not,” said Madula Kalesis, owner of Westside Restaurant, which has an outdoor dining area.

Whether or not the 30% fire occupancy will impact a business partly depends on the layout. To space tables 6 feet apart, Benvenuto was already operating at about that amount.

Johnson is happy she still can use bar seating. “There are certain guests who come every Friday or Saturday night and eat at their dinner at the bar,” she said. When bar seating was prohibited, these customers did not come in as often.

The reduced capacity will affect Westside, Kalesis said. Plus, she is unable to use the counter seats, despite their similarity to bar stools.

Delaware Division of Public Health Director Karyl Rattay said during the briefing that restaurants were working hard to follow the rules, “but the reality is that [the virus] is spread from respiratory droplets, and it’s hard to control that in a restaurant setting.”

As a result, new restrictions also address mask use. Previously, diners could remove their masks while at their table but had to wear them if they went to the bathroom or moved around.

Now guests may remove face coverings only to eat or drink. They must wear them at all other times and when servers approach the table.

Benvenuto has created tent cards explaining the new policy. “That’s all we can do,” said Johnson, who questions mask use at the table. “The same air is passing between them when they’re eating or not eating.”

Kalesis agreed. A diner is not likely to keep pulling a mask up and down to take a sip of coffee. “There is no way we can police them.”

She feels restaurants are back to the pandemic’s early days when the restrictions nearly “killed” businesses.

Gov. John Carney, however, said he didn’t want another shutdown. Businesses need to earn money.

But with the reduced capacity, servers will lose tip money — if not their jobs, Kalesis noted.

The restaurateurs are worried about consumer confidence. Kalesis saw a dip in business over the past few weeks due to rumors about another shutdown.

“The consumer doesn’t understand that we are following the regulations,” Johnson agreed. If they feel safe standing elbow to elbow in a crowded box store, they should feel even safer in a restaurant, she added.

During the briefing, Carney said he expanded the DE Relief Grants program to provide up to $25 million in additional relief.

But that may not fix restaurants’ reputation. “The restaurant industry as a whole does not want to be a problem, right?” said Schrader of Arena’s Deli & Bar. “We all just want to go back to work.”

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