Restaurants across West Virginia will be allowed to resume outdoor dining service beginning Monday, but some Charleston-area restaurant owners are torn as to what their futures may hold.
Those who are planning to open for business agree the experience will look different as the fight to limit the spread of the coronavirus continues.
At Soho’s, located in Capitol Market, owner and operator Tracy Abdalla said servers will be wearing masks and gloves, and tables in the restaurant’s outdoor area will be spaced at least 6 feet apart to follow Gov. Jim Justice’s most recent guidelines.
“It’s important that we do this,” Abdalla said. “It’s getting back to a sense of normalcy. Dining out isn’t just getting something to eat, it’s creating memories, it’s creating feelings. There’s a reason people get together around the dinner table. We want to get back to that.”
For Abdalla and other restaurant owners, like Aoleen Stavrulakis, who runs Pizza Barbarossa, Sokolata and Creperi Cafe with her husband, Manoli, reopening is also a chance to start recouping revenue lost during the shutdown.
Abdalla said the effect on his business has been nearly devastating. He and his co-owners took over Soho’s just weeks before the pandemic prompted restrictions limiting eateries to drive-thru, curbside and carryout service. It was “not the easiest time to run a restaurant,” he said.
Aoleen Stavrulakis said her businesses are bringing in, at best, 30% of their normal revenue. The need for to-go materials has driven operating expenses higher, even as the size of the staff has been reduced.
“Business is down, way, way down,” Stavrulakis said. “It’s never been like this, and we’ve cut costs every way we can. We can’t do it much longer.”
Keeley Steele, who runs three businesses on Charleston’s East End, said the risk of reopening during the pandemic isn’t worth a potential bump in sales.
Two of Steele’s establishments, Tricky Fish and Starlings Coffee & Provisions, have outdoor seating, but she said she has no plans to open them up Monday. Between limited seating for customers and the costs associated with purchasing the personal protective equipment needed to ensure her employees are safe, Steele said she’s not convinced reopening would be profitable.
“The idea is that [restaurant owners] are all trying to stay open so we still have name recognition when this is all over. But the reality is places are shuttering. Some restaurants won’t be here when it’s done, and we have to be smart,” Steele said. “The bottom line is the only people that know what’s best for a business is the business owner.”
Steele said there hasn’t been enough guidance to business owners on reopening, and at the moment, she doesn’t believe it’s safe.
“We don’t have any guidelines. Right now we’re just being told, ‘OK, you can seat people outside.’ We don’t know what that means, what specifics we need to follow,” Steele said. “For most of us, outside seating is a fraction of our [restaurants]. If it’s raining, do we just close for the day? Do you just send your staff home — staff you brought back to work — with no pay?”
Justice rolled out his plan to reopen the state last week, a phased-in approach that allows for more businesses to resume operation as long as the state continues to remain below a 3% cumulative positive COVID-19 test rate. Justice previously said plans to reopen would follow 14 consecutive days with a decrease in the number of positive tests.
In addition to outdoor dining returning to restaurants, hair salons, nail salons and small businesses with fewer than 10 employees can reopen Monday. If the positive test rate remains below 3%, more businesses and public buildings could be cleared to reopen in the weeks that follow.
Per Justice’s plan, the reopening push could be stopped or rolled back at any time based on advice from the state’s medical experts. That alone, Steele said, is reason to wait.
“I’m not convinced that my customers will feel safe sitting in a dining room, and of course that’s our main concern — making sure we’re all safe, including my staff and customers,” Steele said. “I don’t think we can guarantee that to anyone right now.”
Jason Myer, owner of Super Weenie in downtown Charleston, said he has no plans to reopen his business anytime soon. The hot dog stand shut down in March, and Myer said he laid off his three employees so they could qualify for unemployment while the shop is closed.
Myer said his business model, which is centered on crowding people into his small Quarrier Street shop during lunch hours, wasn’t made with the coronavirus in mind.
“We aim to have a lot of people in a small space for a few hours each day. That does not work now. It doesn’t work at all,” Myer said. “So no, we’re not opening until it makes sense. Even if we changed how we operated right now, we probably wouldn’t open. It’s not safe.”
Myer said one of his employees is diabetic, making them more susceptible to COVID-19. Myer also said he wants to see his grandparents again — sooner rather than later. If he reopened his shop now, he said it wouldn’t be safe to do that, and he doesn’t want to be responsible for getting anyone sick.
“If we reopen, we’re putting a lot of people at risk — our families, our customers, their families. I’m not going to be responsible for getting someone sick, for someone potentially dying,” Myer said. “If you judge me for that, well frankly I don’t want your business.”
If things change in coming weeks, Myer said Super Weenie would probably reopen with just him behind the counter, at least for a while, to ensure the safety of his employees.
At Pizza Barbarossa, which doesn’t have an outdoor dining area, Stavrulakis said she’s planning to call employees laid off last month to talk about returning to work once indoor dining resumes.
She said she’s unsure how some will respond, but she’s hopeful most will come back. Getting her businesses back up is the first step back to stability, she said.
But even as restaurants begin the process of reopening, there is no guarantee customers will return. Stavrulakis said that while she worries many customers will stay home to protect themselves from the risk of infection, not reopening isn’t an option.
“This is a place, we built it, built our businesses for years. We sweat at these places, bled there, risked a lot to make them what they are. We worked hard for it,” Stavrulakis said. “We can’t let it go. I know it’s a hard time for everybody. We have to stand back on our feet, though. We can’t afford to fail.”