Restaurants juggle restrictions as governor offers unemployment help

Volunteer Laura Stets hands Tanya Mann soup and bread for her family Tuesday at Nancy’s Café in Milford, where owner Nancy Forster is offering food to help the community during the coronavirus pandemic. (Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — Restaurant and bar owners in Kent and Sussex counties faced a new business model Tuesday after Gov. John Carney ordered the industry statewide to close dining rooms and only serve takeout for the foreseeable future to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Tom Armstrong, owner of Tom’s Bullpen in the Hamlet Shopping Center, said Gov. John Carney’s decision to close restaurants and bars seating areas, limiting the businesses to only serving takeout orders, could force many of them to shut down operations in the future. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

Tom Armstrong, owner of Tom’s Bullpen in the Hamlet Shopping Center in Dover, said he believed the governor’s decision was a knee-jerk reaction made with little concern to individual businesses and the livelihood of their employees.

“I think he should make (the closures) like two weeks at the most to see what it does, other than that, if he makes it go longer we’re all going to hurt,” Mr. Armstrong said. “It hurts me a lot because No. 1, my employees can collect unemployment, I can’t.

“I’ve still got all this food that might go bad, which it’s going to, and I’ve still got to pay the rent. I’ve still got to pay the electric and I have no income coming in because they shut us down. It’s not worth having a takeout because if I was going to sell 10 orders of food it’s going to cost me more money to keep the employees here, plus with electric and gas, it’s not going to be worth it.”

Ken Adams, of JD Shuckers Seafood Grill and Raw Bar in Georgetown and the Stockley Tavern and Package Store on U.S. 113 south of Georgetown worried about the impact coming and hoped people will see the difficulties confronting food-industry workers.

“The biggest story is all the employees. We’re just scrambling to try to rotate to get them hours and stuff like that,” Mr. Adams said. “If you can’t have any people dining in, and you can’t open your bar, there’s your bartender and your servers. We’re trying to schedule some of our servers to actually make deliveries — and our bartenders.”

“I have a day job, but a lot of these folks that work for us don’t, and they don’t have another job,” he said. “So, hopefully people will support, come and get their carry-outs, call for delivery and keep them working.”

Diane Laird, executive director of the Downtown Dover Partnership, said she feels for every single person who finds themselves financially impacted by the repercussions brought by the coronavirus pandemic response.

“Many of us have consistent paychecks and some can work at home,” she said. “But our business owners rely on daily sales and without foot traffic, generating revenue may be next to impossible, unless they can quickly innovate.

“Some are already set up to sell online or offer takeout and curbside service. For those that aren’t, this down time could prove to be valuable for both the immediate future and for long-term sustainability, if they are able to offer new or unique purchasing options, online and in other ways.”

In an effort to help workers, the state Department of Labor Tuesday released emergency rules to ensure those impacted by the pandemic can receive unemployment benefits.

Secretary of Labor Cerron Cade issued new guidelines to enhance the flexibility of Delaware’s unemployment insurance program to provide cash assistance to many Delaware workers whose employment has been impacted directly by COVID-19 and who would not typically qualify for benefits.

Workers will be eligible to receive benefits if an employer needs to curtail or shut down operations temporarily because of the coronavirus outbreak or the resulting declaration of a state of emergency.

Individuals who have been instructed by a doctor to self-quarantine will be eligible, as will parents or guardians forced to quit or take unpaid leave from their jobs to care for children due to the emergency closure of schools and workers who have been forced to quit or take unpaid leave to care for a loved one who has contracted coronavirus.

An individual who becomes sick from the virus and is unable to work may be eligible for benefits. Part-time workers may also be eligible.

“These restrictions will hit Delaware’s restaurants and bars especially hard,” Gov. Carney said. “Delawareans should continue to support these businesses, and their workers, by ordering takeout or delivery. Restaurants also remain a critical source of food for vulnerable populations.”

On Monday, Gov. Carney submitted an application formally requesting the U.S. Small Business Administration to provide Delaware an Economy Injury Declaration, which would make loans available to small businesses and nonprofit organizations in New Castle, Kent and Sussex counties.

In his letter to the SBA, Gov. Carney said the impact of coronavirus on small businesses would likely be significant.

The governor also directed the Delaware Division of Small Business to look for additional opportunities to support the state’s 25,000 small businesses.

Once the state’s application to the SBA is approved, the low-interest loans of up to $2 million per business will be available for many small businesses and nonprofits that have suffered substantial economic injury as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. The loans are designed to help with the temporary loss of revenue and may be used for working capital expenses such as payroll, fixed debts and accounts payable, as well as other bills the business or nonprofit is unable to pay.

Ms. Laird said the DDP also is seeking relief for downtown Dover’s affected business owners.

“Ideas like requesting grace from landlords or vendors to allow payment flexibility can go a long way at a critical time as this is,” she said. “We are encouraging the members of the community to shop online, even purchase gift cards from downtown shops for later redemption to help them cover immediate expenses.”

New business as usual?

Brandon Pelton, owner of 33 West Ale House and Grill on Loockerman Street in downtown Dover, wasn’t exactly optimistic as he prepared to break down his restaurant with his staff on Tuesday.

“It’s not going to be a good look,” Mr. Pelton said. “It is what it is. It’s out of my hands so there’s nothing I can really do about it. I’ll probably have to take out a loan to stay afloat. I’m sure they’re probably going to come out with stuff.

“It’s a little new in the process so I don’t think anybody really knows what the outcome’s going to be.”

Mr. Pelton said that due to the wide variety of options on his menu it would make doing takeout service difficult. He didn’t rule out eventually trying to serve takeout food, albeit from a limited menu.

Audrey Miller and her family made the decision to close entirely their family-run Dagsboro Days coffee shop, a popular Main Street hub for java, pastries and conversation.

In the end it was a no-brainer.

“We decided for the time being to temporarily close down,” said Ms. Miller Tuesday. “One of the main reasons behind that is because we advertise ourselves to be a gathering place, and right now that is just not in anyone’s best interest.”

Ms. Miller, her parents, Dana and Patrick Miller, and on occasion her husband are the shop’s only employees.

“We do have some coffee shops in the area that are making (the restrictions) work for them,” she added. “But we just really value the importance of everybody’s health and safety. And with everything changing so rapidly everybody is a little bit scared. That just kind of made our decision for us, that if people are concerned for their safety then it’s safer for us to all be at home and take care of ourselves.”

Adil Belhachemi, one of the owners of Roma Pizza in the same shopping center as Tom’s off Walker Road, had a different take on the governor’s adjustment to his state of emergency declaration, noting the number of people who already had tested positive for coronavirus in Delaware.

“We have to adhere with the governor’s decision. It’s for our safety,” Mr. Belhachemi said. “Everybody has to cooperate together for the safety of the people with this virus. It’s not about the money right now, it’s more about safety, and we all have to work together like a team.

“Even if (Gov. Carney) told us to close it, we’d close. I think it’s better to shut down for two weeks and everybody stay at home. It’s not about the money now.”

Mr. Armstrong, of Dover, said he will try to weather the storm as long as he can.

“We have eight pool leagues that play here that have shut down because of the coronavirus and all that money we were getting is now gone. Thank God I’ve saved a little bit – but not that much. I put most of that money back into my business.

“Our Happy Hour crowd is here seven days a week, faithfully playing trivia and supporting us. I’m going to miss every one of them. We’ve just got to wait and see, I guess.”

Like Mr. Armstrong, Mr. Adams, of Stockley Tavern and Package Store and JD Shuckers and expressed frustration of the restrictions on his food businesses and not others.

“The tavern, you can come and pick up food. But you can’t come in and sit down and eat,” he said. “Yet you can go in Wawa right now and stand 10-head deep to get a sub … fill the building up and have people rubbing noses and sneezing on food!”

Dover residents looking to stop at the House of Coffi on Loockerman Street were left out in the cold Monday.

Kristin Stonesifer, who owns the café with her husband Todd, was busy making preparations for delivery and takeout service, yet aware that with many customers being state and city employees no longer at work in downtown Dover, it may not be beneficial.

Todd Stonesifer said he anticipates the coffee house to be open Wednesday morning.

“Things have to be done,” Mr. Stonesifer said. “(The limitations are) going to hurt, and I don’t know what we’re going to do, and I don’t know how long it’s going to last. It seems to be a never-ending plague and it’s weird because I think H1N1 affected a whole lot more people than this.”

Anita Wheeler-Bezy, co-owner of LaBaguette, completes a take out order in Dover on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

La Baguette Bakery, at 323 S. Governors Ave., made adjustments on the fly, telling customers via social media that they can order online and workers will bring their food to their car.

For those Dover residents who have been searching for bread and finding empty shelves in grocery stores, Ludovic Bezy, co-owner and chef at La Baguette, said they have plenty of fresh loaves.

“(Tuesday) has been slow, Monday wasn’t so bad,” Mr. Bezy said. “It was like a regular Monday yesterday. I did notice that we’re selling more bread than usual. Not much has changed for us as a bakery. People still come and go.

“I just think people have been paying attention to what the media is saying and they’re being careful (about coronavirus).”

Hungry Howie’s, a popular choice of eats in western Sussex County, has always been takeout and delivery only. There is no dine-in.

So franchise owner Craig Dimes said he was seeing a slight pick up in business early this week when the restrictions came down from Gov. Carney. Just comparing one day over last year his business was up.

“Will it eventually trickle down and be as much of an impact because people aren’t buying? That’s the long term,” he said. “It might help me for a few weeks but when people start having those tight paychecks, and stuff like that, it might change the atmosphere a little bit.”

Some fast food restaurants began closing dining rooms prior to the governor’s order, operating only drive-thru business.

Tim Sweetman, franchise owner of Millsboro’s Chick-fil-A, said Tuesday that was working well.

“We are very uniquely positioned to win this drive-thru requirement,” he said, given the mobile ordering available and the company practices in place for sanitation and distributing excess food.

“That’s what we are about right now — making sure we stay open as long as possible, that we keep serving our community through the drive-thru, through mobile and then — with any other resources we have — make sure that our team members are taken care of, that they still have an income as long as we possibly can do it. And making sure that any of our donations are going to our local school children that are really going to need it,” said Mr. Sweetman.

“It has been neat to see people come together, serve one another. It’s going to bring out the best in people,” he said. “A lot of times some of these crises do that.”

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.