COVID restrictions take bite out of business in Delaware restaurants

A sign on top of a table informs customers that it’s unavailable as Mission BBQ employee Jennifer Rambo cleans a table at the Dover restaurant on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — In the wake of the National Restaurant Association sending a letter to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives this week asking for federal and local support for the owners and employees of the entire industry, Delaware restaurants are trying to survive with the state’s new 30% occupancy restriction.

Restaurants were among the businesses most affected by the latest COVID-related restrictions imposed by Gov. John Carney, which began on Nov. 23. Since then, restaurants can operate at no more than 30% of fire capacity indoors, with allowances for additional outdoor seating, while parties sitting at a bar area must not exceed two people.

These were the guidelines Delaware restaurants first used when they reopened in the spring following the state’s shutdown at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Allowed capacity soon expanded to 60% in the summer where it stayed until the new round of restrictions last month.

According to the Delaware Restaurant Association, the state’s restaurants reported that restricting capacity to just 30% would force up to 40% of Delaware restaurants to shut their doors within a year without a financial lifeline.

The new restrictions came down as Delaware is experiencing its highest rate of new daily positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The state set a record of 338 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday and is at an all-time high for the seven-day rolling average of new cases per day at 730. Both numbers reflect data as of Monday at 6 p.m. via the Delaware Division of Public Health.

The Delaware Restaurant Association feels restaurants are being unfairly scapegoated for the rise in cases.

“Although we continue to support action to protect the health of all Delawareans, we believe there is an unfounded impression that restaurants are part of the problem,” said DRA President and CEO Carrie Leishman. “As a result, restaurants will severely suffer from these inconsistent and restrictive mandates not applied to other industries.”

Gov. Carney has pointed to the state’s contact tracing data, where restaurants have been the No. 1 venue those with positive cases have reported visiting for the last 12 weeks worth of data.

For the week of Nov. 29 to Dec. 5, 105 individuals who tested positive reported being at a restaurant — the next highest venue were dinner parties which 59 individuals reported visiting that week.

“The highest number is restaurants and bars and gyms — places where people gather,” Gov. Carney said. “Places where you gather and you’re drinking alcohol and you might let your guard down. That’s problematic only when we have a pandemic.”

“If you could eat with a mask on, it would be not as big an issue,” Gov. Carney added. “Obviously that’s ludicrous. You take your mask off when you’re eating or talking or whatever and that’s what creates challenges for restaurant venues.”

However, the individuals reached by state’s contact tracers represent a small sample size of the state’s positive cases. Only 483, 25% of all contacted cases, reported participating in an event or visiting a venue in the two weeks prior to the onset of their symptoms or the date of their COVID-19 test.

Ms. Leishman of the DRA expanded on this in her statement in response to the new occupancy restrictions, saying it does not report “on visitation of common places such as retail, grocery, convenience, gas stations as well as the workplace.” While “questions about restaurant visits did not differentiate between outdoor, indoor or even drivethrough or carry-out visits.”

“In our opinion, this data lacks merit,” Ms. Leishman said. “Business sector restrictions and closures based on this type of contact tracing is dangerous.”

This issue came to a head on Black Friday, when photos of a crowded Christiana Mall food court made the rounds on social media, stirring up strong emotions from those in the restaurant community.

“Will contact tracers from Delaware Department of Health and Social Services ask about whether or not people have eaten in open, food court areas? Or just restaurants?” the DRA posted on Instagram. “We need true data from contact tracing — not just point fingers at places where people have visited.”

State officials responded swiftly, limiting food courts at malls to a maximum of 100 people. Jamie Mack, the DPH’s chief of Health Systems Protection, said he thought the Christiana Mall’s food court was following the 30% rule but something still needed to be done to prevent the Black Friday situation from happening again.

“While we think they were probably in compliance and probably maintaining that 30% restriction, it was obvious that even with that restriction in place and that number of people, it was still a challenging environment,” Mr. Mack said. “We needed to make some additional requirements to help them keep things under control to keep people safe.”

The new restrictions also require face-covering reminders on all tables, Mr. Mack said. Community areas such as pool tables and dance floors are closed, but Mr. Mack pointed out these areas can be used for additional seating.

Above all else when creating new restrictions, Gov. Carney said the first thing the state does is follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

“It’s my job as governor to look at the science as presented by those experts and say, ‘Here’s what we should do to protect the health and safety and welfare of Delawareans,’ and that’s what we’ve done,” Gov. Carney said. “This time around, we’ve tried to be more targeted.”

“It really pains me to have to impose restrictions on any business operation,” Gov. Carney added. “The reality is we know where COVID-19 is transmitted and it’s in gatherings indoors mostly. We’re doing everything we can to prevent the spread of the virus and enable businesses to stay open to get revenue,”

According to a survey by the National Restaurant Association, 87% of full-service restaurants (independent chain, and franchise) reported an average 36% drop in sales revenue over the course of the pandemic while 83% of full-service operators expect sales to be even worse over the next three months.

It also said 58% of chain and independent full-service operators expect continued furloughs and layoffs for at least the next three months, according to the same survey.

Based on that data, the National Restaurant Association is predicting that as of Monday, 17% of restaurants are completely closed. On average, these restaurants had been in business for 16 years and 16% had been open for at least 30 years, it said.

The survey also found that only 48% of these former restaurant owners say it is likely they will remain in the industry in any form in the months or years ahead.

“What these findings make clear is that more than 500,000 restaurants of every business type — franchise, chain and independent — are in an unprecedented economic decline,” the National Restaurant Association wrote in its letter to Congress.

“And for every month that passes without a solution from Congress, thousands more restaurants across the country will close their doors for good.”

Staff writer Tim Mastro can be reached at tmastro@newszap.com.

Follow @TimMastroDSN on Twitter.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.