Many Georgia restaurants will not reopen this week, despite the governor’s push

Restaurant owners say they fear an even bigger financial hit from a rush to restart business before the coronavirus is contained.

Pictured above, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp.

ATLANTAAs Georgia’s governor loosens restrictions on businesses imposed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, many restaurants in the state say they will remain closed to dine-in customers rather than risk the health of their staff and patrons.

Republican Governor Brian Kemp, citing the economic impact of the pandemic, announced this week that businesses such as gyms and nail salons could begin reopening in the state on Friday. Starting Monday restaurants could resume dine-in service under new, temporary standards including screening staff for illness, limiting tables to no more than six customers and increasing physical space between staff and customers.

But many question the public health ramifications of reopening at this stage, as Covid-19 cases in the state continue to increase. As of early Friday, there have been more than 20,000 reported cases in Georgia and more than 800 deaths.

“Parts of our dining room we’re using only to store to-go containers. We have more to-go containers than we’ve ever had before.”

Jesse Smith is an owner of the well-known Decatur restaurant Kimball House and Atlanta’s Watchman’s.  When he first heard Kemp’s announcement, his “stomach sank,” he said. Smith worries Kemp’s decision means it could take longer for his restaurants to get back to normal if there is another surge of infections. 

Smith stressed the logistical difficulties of reopening restaurants that had to pivot to to-go only orders a little over a month ago “Parts of our dining room we’re using only to store to-go containers. We have more to-go containers than we’ve ever had before.” Even if he wanted to open, it would be difficult on such short notice. Restaurants’ inventory levels after a month of closure or reduced service are not high enough to snap back to regular dine-in service. 

Ultimately, Smith said his decision to stay closed came down to safety. “We will always put health and safety before finances,” he said. 

Governors of a few other states are poised to follow Kemp’s lead. Governor Henry McMaster of South Carolina reopened beaches and some retailers this week. The governors of Tennessee, Ohio, and Colorado seem unlikely to extend stay-at-home orders that expire next week. But Kemp’s decision has been met with criticism from President Donald Trump and top federal health officials who say it’s too soon and could trigger an explosion of new cases. Some Democratic lawmakers, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, have urged residents to ignore Kemp’s reopening directive. 

“We are not a 300-seat chain restaurant that can remove a table or two and then operate with these new, never before applied sanitizing regulations, which are not being policed or monitored in any way.”

If restaurant owners are a bellwether, the food and beverage industry is not ready to return to business as usual. 

The day of Kemp’s press conference, Greg Best fielded calls from his furloughed staff worried they would be reopening Ticonderoga Club, a restaurant known for its cocktails in an upscale food hall in Atlanta. Best said there was no chance Ticonderoga Club would open next week. Not only did he not want to put staff or patrons at risk, Best said it is unfeasible to think the restaurant could adhere to new health guidelines while operating. 

“We are not a 300-seat chain restaurant that can remove a table or two and then operate with these new, never before applied sanitizing regulations, which are not being policed or monitored in any way,” he said.  Best had not heard anything from the owners of the food hall space that made him think they accommodate this new normal. 

“The trips I’ve taken to the grocery store, hardware store, I definitely don’t feel any safer in those places than I would feel sitting in my own restaurant.”

Bo Peabody is on the Georgia Restaurant Association Task Force that is trying to make sense of the sudden rush to reopen restaurants while maintaining new hygiene standards. Despite personally feeling like the reopenings are “too soon,” Peabody said he doesn’t believe restaurants pose more of a risk than many other businesses. “The trips I’ve taken to the grocery store, hardware store, I definitely don’t feel any safer in those places than I would feel sitting in my own restaurant,” he said. 

The task force put together some safety guidelines and sent them over to the governor’s office for review by public health officials. Peabody said the task force tried to adapt current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for essential businesses.

Hugh Acheson, a restaurateur and award-winning chef, will not be reopening his restaurants for dine-in service, also saying it’s too soon. The owner of 5&10 in Athens and Empire State South and By George in Atlanta, Acheson had to furlough most of his staff. He has partnered with the not-for-profit World Central Kitchen to start making and delivering meals for communities in need, as well as first responders and healthcare workers. Now, he and a staff he pays with a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program are putting out between 7,000 and 8,000 meals weekly. 

“If you have a 60 people restaurant and you’re now seating 30, what economic boon are you going to see in that?”

In addition to worrying about his staff’s safety, Acheson does not think it would be economically viable to reopen while trying to rush new health and safety guidelines. “If you have a 60 people restaurant and you’re now seating 30, what economic boon are you going to see in that?”

Restaurants that do choose to open in coming weeks will need to focus on new hygiene standards going forward, according to Jay Bandy, who is on the board of directors of the Georgia Restaurant Association and the owner of Goliath Consulting Group. He consults with restaurants across a number of states, including Georgia and South Carolina. None of the restaurants he consults with are opening Monday, but Bandy thinks some may open as soon as June 1. When it comes to social distancing during food service, Bandy is trying to pinpoint areas where the virus could spread. “How do you separate guests and the staff? That’s the biggest issue. Separating the guest will be a hassle, but it is possible.”

Some owners are not convinced. 

Before Argosy, a gastropub in East Atlanta Village, reopens, owner Armando Celentano and his partners, “[want] to see two weeks with no new cases.” 

Even after two weeks of no new infections, Celentano only plans to bring in his staff for retraining and a deep clean. He wants additional time before they open for full service. Celentano said he is trying to think long-term. “I’m a lifer. I’m worried about my friends and my staff,” he said. 

Looking forward, Best is hopeful. He thinks restaurants will come back from this pandemic, though he acknowledges the situation has changed drastically in the past month. “We have been shifted into a leadership position that extends beyond the four walls of our restaurant,” Best said of the decision to remain closed. “We’ve become real community advocates.”

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Clare Busch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, Al Jazeera, World Politics Review, and more. Follow her on Twitter @Clare_Busch.