Milford restaurants concerned about new COVID-19 restrictions

Outdoor patio at Benvenuto Tuscan restaurant in Milford, DE.

On December 10, Governor John Carney issued additional restrictions on bars and restaurants in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. All bars and restaurants must now close at 10 PM although they are permitted to offer carry-out after 10 PM. Several Milford area bar and restaurant owners and managers expressed frustration at the new regulations.

“We are the scapegoats in all of this,” Bill Clifton, who grew up in Milford and now owns the Counting House in Georgetown, said. “There is nothing more sanitary than a restaurant as we are strictly regulated by the health department. You can actually go online to the health department website and see any violation a restaurant may have. You can’t do that with the big box stores. We are bending over backward to keep things clean. Every time a customer gets up from a table, we are cleaning and sanitizing that table and anything a customer may touch.”

Clifton stated that he has been told by people who have tested positive that they were asked where they went. When they respond they went to a bar or restaurant, they are told that is where they must have gotten the virus.

“No one asks them if they got gas, because that gas pump was certainly not cleaned after each use,” Clifton said. “Or did they go to Walmart or Lowe’s? Yes, you wear a mask, but you touch things others have touched that have not been wiped down after each contact. In that restaurant, everything you touch is wiped down immediately. The issue we have right now is that we are not able to be hospitable. When someone comes in 15 minutes before closing, yeah, we groan because we want to go home, but we don’t turn them away. We serve them. And this is not a quick process, this is not an amusement park where they are on and off within a few minutes. The reason I am in this business is because I love the hospitality aspect of my restaurant.”

Clifton is not alone in his frustrations. Matty Rowan, General Manager of Arena’s in Milford, also expressed concerns.

“According to the newest regulations, all patrons must vacate the premises by 10 PM, except for those picking up food or alcohol to go,” Rowan said. “No patron is permitted to consume food or beverage after 10 PM on the premises. Essentially, this means we will have to call last call around 9 PM to give patrons that are in the building the opportunity to safely finish their alcohol and food by 10 PM. Considering the cost of operating kitchen equipment, electricity and employee wages, I do not foresee to-go orders advantageous to stay open past 10 PM, so that really does not do us any favors.”

Rowan and Clifton also pointed out that by requiring restaurants to close at 10 PM during the holiday season, it will encourage people to hold parties in their homes for the holiday, and especially New Year’s Eve, which will be more difficult for the state to control.

Lisa Johnson, co-owner of Benvenuto in Milford, feels as if the regulations have made people feel as if restaurants are unsafe.

“Before COVID-19, we never had less than 50 people in our restaurant on a weeknight and we were seating 160 to 180 on the weekends,” Johnson said. “Now, we are lucky if we get 50 to 60 all week and maybe 100 on the weekends. When they raised the capacity from 30 percent to 60 percent, it made no difference for us because we still had to keep tables six feet apart. We only have so much floor space, so 60 percent might as well be 30 percent. We simply can’t continue to sustain this. The regulations are also contradictory. We are told no more than four to a table, but what do I do when a family of five comes in? Do they have to sit apart from each other? I was told that if they are in the same household it is fine, but how do I know that they are? If a group of ten people wants to make a reservation, isn’t that their choice?”

Clifton agrees with Johnson that the regulations are putting restaurant staff in the position of policing what patrons do.

“When the recommendation came out that people should keep their masks on at the table when they are not eating, we found that people just don’t want to do that,” Clifton said. “Especially if they are with family members they live with. We require masks to and from the table, to and from the bathroom, but I don’t want my servers demanding that someone sitting at a table keep their mask on when they finish their meal.”

Clifton, Rowan and Johnson are very concerned about their staff as well. Bartenders and servers depend on tips to make up the difference between their hourly rate and minimum wage. By requiring the establishment to close at 10 PM, staff will lose as much as three hours in tips.

“I have cut staff as much as I can,” Clifton said. “I have tried to find things for those who have been with me the longest to do so I don’t have to lay them off, but it is getting harder. Keep in mind that in Sussex County, you have two seasons. The summer and December with holiday parties. The summer was a total loss and now the state has taken the holiday season as well. They are encouraging people to use delivery services like DoorDash, GrubHub and UberEats, but those companies take 30 percent just to pick up our food and delivery it. There are also fees involved that make it far more expensive for people to order from them than directly from the restaurant.”

Clifton stated that there is little communication from the state, explaining that the industry had just seven days to implement the most recent regulations. He would like to see the state provide the ability for restaurant owners to express their concerns and offer their own solutions to the problem.

“In all honesty, I would rather we just get shut down,” Clifton said. “Provide us with another round of grants to keep us afloat, let us lay off our employees so they can get unemployment rather than keep adding restrictions that really make no sense. Restaurants and bars already operate on a very slim profit margin and when you throw these things at us at the last minute, we are struggling even more. We need the assistance before the requirements, not the other way around.”

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