Delaware restaurants struggle with virus effects

Aidan Yousefkhanian cooks on the grill as Nikki Toulson and Aryana Yousefkhanian work on orders at Simarons Pizza & Steak Shop in Dover. The downtown restaurant said they will stay open until told otherwise. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Social distancing isn’t something restaurant owners want to put on their menus.

But it’s a challenge the industry is embracing to fight the spread of coronavirus and counter a decrease in customers.

Kristin Garramone, who co-owns Roma Italian Ristorante in Dover along with her husband Joe, said their business has done everything it can to try to stay ahead of the effects of the pandemic.

“We’re communicating with our staff to frequently wash hands, sanitize surfaces, not shake hands and stay home if (they) feel sick,” Mrs. Garramone said. “But we’ve decided to take it even one step further by removing some of our tables and seats in our restaurants so that guests may have a little more distance between them.

“While it may seem opposite in the spirit of hospitality to embrace ‘social distancing,’ on the plus side our guests will have more room to enjoy the dining experience that we provide.”

Ryan Hacker wipes down the back of a booth at the Roma Italian Restaurant on Friday in Dover.

Developments this week, with confirmed cases in Delaware and Gov. John Carney declaring a state of emergency that advised against public gatherings of more than 100 people, led to widespread event cancellations and major changes in how government and private sector business operate.

“The impact this has as a small business, our margins are extremely small,” Mrs. Garramone said. “Pretty much all our large groups, including some pharmaceutical groups, have already canceled. It’s impacted much of our staff and how much money they make off tips. Plus, my husband and myself still have an overhead that has to be met.”

“Vendors are affected because we have to drop our ordering down, which is a challenge. The coronavirus has pretty much affected every aspect of our company.”

Roma and its Sul Tempo cocktail lounge, located at 3 President Drive in southeast Dover, is doing its best to accommodate staff, customers and visitors to its facility.

“I’ve done all the research I can find in regard to what other businesses are doing to be smart and we have moved tables apart so guests won’t be sitting so close together,” said Mrs. Garramone. “Our staff is working under a sanitation code. Everything that anybody touches is cleaned, every menu is wiped down, everything is as clean as it can possibly be.”

She added that the immediate impact of the coronavirus came as a shock to her and other restaurateurs in the area who now have to fight through worries the public now has with sharing space with each other and if it is worth it to go out and enjoy a meal.

“We are proud to be a part of a loving, resilient community of employees, regulars, neighbors and guests,” Mrs. Garramone said. “Though news about the coronavirus seems to change daily, we are taking extra precautions to ensure the wellness and safety of everyone in our restaurant.”

EasySpeak Distillery Owner Marissa Cordell said her business in Milford also is doing its best to press on despite the virus. She said staff clean the facility from top to bottom multiple times a day.

“I think the coronavirus has the potential to really affect small local businesses,” Ms. Cordell said. “I think people panicking over it is worse than the actual virus itself. As far as a day-to-day business, we haven’t seen a huge change, but a lot of our big events are getting canceled, like the St. Patrick’s Day Pub Crawl that was scheduled for Saturday night.

Roma Italian Restaurant owners Joe and Kristin Garramone set up a dinner table on Friday in Dover.

“That’s a bummer because we already ordered all the products that we thought we would need ahead of the event.”

She added that most of her businesses’ clientele are older and that can be a concern, as well.

“It’s just a disaster if you think about it,” said Ms. Cordell. “We have friends and family we worry about and a business to try to keep up and running. This is not something that anyone can really prepare for.”

Many eateries posted statements explaining their cleaning practices and protocols in an effort to reassure diners this week.

Grotto Pizza is changing things around at its 20 locations in response to the coronavirus threat and precautions.

Starting today, the restaurant will limit the total amount of patrons within its bar areas by requiring that all guests be seated at either a table or bar stool. The common practice of allowing additional patrons to stand and roam around its bar areas will be suspended.

Grotto’s officials said the new practice will allow it to control the total amount of guests in its locations, limiting the number of bar patrons to less than 100.

The company also said that it has suspended all bar-related events, including music bingo, trivia and live entertainment in all its Delaware locations through April 3.

Some Delaware businesses, especially larger venues that draw crowds, are closing shop altogether.

Milton-based Dogfish Head reported on social media that it is closing its coastal Delaware locations for a week, starting today. That includes its Dogfish Head Tasting Room and Kitchen, Dogfish Head Brewpub, Dogfish Head’s Chesapeake and Maine and Dogfish Inn. Additionally, the business canceled all events through March, including the Weekend of Compelling Ales and Spirits.

The Starboard Restaurant and Bar in Dewey Beach started to kick off its opening weekend ceremonies, with festivities Thursday, but changed gears before the night was over.

Owner Steve Montgomery posted on social media that after having direct consultation from the Governor’s Office and the Director of State Division of Health in Delaware, the remaining events were canceled.

“We tried to keep our plans to the best of our ability, and worked hard to set the stage for a stellar weekend of fun knowing how important this weekend is to so many, the reality is that there is no way to keep this place free from the potential of someone who does not know they may yet be infected from affecting the large crowds expected here over the weekend,” he said.

“Even with all of the measures we have taken to maintain the highest standards of cleanliness, anti-bacterial soaps, and hand washing stations, and more, the state of emergency advised that the most people allowed to gather inside The Starboard would be 100 persons. That is not possible with the thousands that have plans to come to Dewey Beach this weekend, therefore we have no choice but to pull the plug and cancel all our opening weekend plans.”

The Starboard will keep its main restaurant open to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner over the weekend but will close each night by 6, prior to the times when the bar area would fill up.

While working a shift Friday, Roma’s Mrs. Garramon even stayed positive during these trying times.

“If you’ve ever complained that you can never get a reservation, now is the time to come visit us,” she said. “And if you’re one of our regulars or neighbors, please come in for some delicious handmade favorites and a glass of wine. And if you’re uncomfortable with dining in with us, then we would be happy to box up an amazing meal for you to enjoy at home.”

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

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