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'You have to hustle and keep going': Restaurants continue to adapt during pandemic

Tables have been shuffled, a couple of barriers were removed and a roof is under construction. It’s a significant facelift for a business that’s been open for more than five years, but sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.

At least that’s the thinking of Michael Jarrouj, the owner of Olive Tree Cafe and Catering, in South Charleston. He’s not only tweaking his original business model — a menu that’s a mix of Mediterranean food, along with some traditional deli offerings — but also altering its basic infrastructure. What was originally tabbed to be a primarily dine-in business has shifted drastically to serve plenty of take-out customers, as well as patrons opting to eat outside on his modest patio.

That adjustment helped Jarrouj weather the pandemic-related shutdown earlier this year while some businesses were shuttered for months.

The outdoor part of that equation is normally seasonal, though. As winter sets in and temperatures drop, so too does the revenue generated from those outdoor patrons.

This year has been anything but normal, though.

That’s why Jarrouj has hammers swinging a week before Thanksgiving. The final result will be a heated and covered patio area that’s been expanded by about 25%.

The expansion isn’t to shoehorn more customers into the area in front of his restaurant — it will seat about 60 people — it’s primarily to keep the ones who already come, while providing ample room to social distance. If a few new customers add the Olive Tree to their regular rotations, Jarrouj said, then that’s just a further return on his investment.

“One thing that’s constant is you have to stay fluid and keep going, no matter what life throws at you,” Jarrouj said. “It’s kind of a risk and a big undertaking. It got a lot bigger than I thought it would be when I started, but we’re trying to do it right. You have to hustle and keep going. The bills don’t stop coming, the kids don’t stop growing.”

Jarrouj is an optimist. Most business owners are searching for ways to adapt or evolve as the uncertainty of a winter blanketed with a pandemic looms, along with the possibility of another shutdown or tighter restrictions.

Attempting to crack the code is a gamble, although local trends indicate more people are willing to take that chance.

According to the city of Charleston, 16 restaurants opened between March 1 and Nov. 18 — twice the number of places that closed during that same span.

Some of the eateries have remained open because, like Jarrouj, they adjusted their businesses. The city also tried to assist downtown dining establishments with a few initiatives. One was bagging parking meters in front of establishments to serve as pick-up areas for businesses offering grab-and-go or carryout service.

“Since July, we’ve closed streets downtown to allow folks to enjoy outdoor dining at several local establishments,” Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin said. “In May, we started allowing businesses to expand sidewalk dining past their storefronts. This was all done in an effort to help small businesses that were limited in the amount of indoor seating they could offer. During this time, many establishments have seen business increase and have been able to hire back staff that was initially laid off because of the pandemic.

“While outdoor dining has become more difficult because of falling temperatures and inclement weather, we continue to be committed to helping our businesses through this difficult time.”

Still, winter in the age of COVID-19 is an unexplored landscape filled with uncertainty.

Consider the case of the Bridge Road Bistro, which has been open since 2004 — more than enough time to streamline a working business model and establish a niche. Its owner, Sandy Call, said that, since March, the restaurant:

  • Was shut down for seven months
  • Ended lunch service as more patrons began working from home
  • Lost significant catering business because of limitations on gatherings; that included a deal to take over catering service for the Clay Center that now won’t kick in until 2021
  • Reduced the number of items on its main menu from 75 to 25;
  • Had to furlough 75% of its staff

Along with those challenges has come the day-to-day monitoring of what used to be mundane concerns, such as shutting down coolers and minimizing hours of operation just to save money on utilities.

“We’ve learned that, at the drop of a dime, we can be told to close our doors to guests,” Call said. “The uncertainty and fear of our staff being exposed is confronting us daily.

“It’s just been one thing after another. But we’re determined to weather this storm and, hopefully, prevail.”

Charleston cancels Christmas Parade

Charleston’s annual Christmas Parade has been canceled for this year, the city announced Friday. Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin cited rising COVID-19 cases as the reason for the move.

“Last year’s Christmas parade was the largest in City of Charleston history. We were looking forward to creating that holiday excitement again this year but with COVID-19 cases rising throughout the City, County and State, we felt it would be irresponsible to move forward in this year’s planning,” Goodwin said in a news release.

City-sponsored Christmas activities will be announced in the coming weeks, according to the release.

“We look forward to creating new socially distant traditions this year and, hopefully, returning to a large evening parade next year,” Goodwin said.

COVID-19 cases and deaths are skyrocketing at a pace unseen during the pandemic in West Virginia. Fifty-nine West Virginians have died because of the virus in the past seven days, including nine in Kanawha County.

There are 1,100 active cases in Kanawha County, with 556 people in the county having tested positive in the past seven days, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard Friday.

Supreme Court sides with Sponaugle and gives 'reside' a definition in ongoing legal battle over Justice's residency as governor

The West Virginia Supreme Court determined Friday that, when the state constitution says someone must “reside” somewhere, it means an elected official must make that place “home base” during his or her respective term in office.

The court handed down its ruling Friday afternoon and it was a step toward forcing Gov. Jim Justice to spend more time in Charleston, but not necessarily in the Governor’s Mansion, as part of a two-year case concerning Justice’s residency as West Virginia’s chief executive.

In a 4-1 decision, the court also ruled that it is not a violation of separation of powers for justices or circuit judges to rule in the case, given that it deals with the enforcement of a provision of the West Virginia Constitution.

“The public has a reasonable expectation that its elected officials will uphold the duties of their offices/positions and follow the law,” Justice Evan Jenkins, who acted as chief justice in this case and will be chief justice for 2021, wrote in the majority opinion.

Justice John Hutchison dissented from his colleagues. His opinion had not been filed as of Friday afternoon.

Chief Justice Tim Armstead recused himself from the case, and Berkeley Circuit Judge Bridget Cohee heard the case in Armstead’s absence.

The court’s ruling wasn’t beneficial to the governor, who stated several times during his first term in office that he splits time between Charleston and his home in Lewisburg. This is most notable during high school basketball season, which occurs annually during part of the West Virginia legislative session, when he serves as the head coach of the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team.

The case will return to Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King for further proceedings. In July 2019, King rejected a motion from the governor’s attorneys to dismiss the case. In the same order, King told Justice’s attorneys to send questions to the Supreme Court to help define the legal meaning of “residence.”

In its ruling Friday, the high court delved into debate among legislators during West Virginia’s constitutional conventions between 1861 and 1863, and in 1872.

Jenkins quoted 19th-century legislators throughout the court’s opinion, saying their actions in increasing the governor’s salary to allow him or her the means to move to Charleston, as well as purchasing a mansion for the governor on Capitol grounds, were clear indications that it had been the intent of the West Virginia Legislature for the governor to live in the capital city.

Jenkins noted that, while there is a taxpayer-funded Governor’s Mansion, the constitution says only that the governor must live in the seat of state government, not necessarily in the mansion.

Justice Margaret Workman wrote a concurring opinion. But she said that, while she agreed with the court’s points on residency and its authority in the case, she felt the majority’s opinion had overreached beyond the scope of what King had asked of it.

“The majority’s new syllabus point establishing a definition for the term ‘reside’ is as feckless as it is imposing,” Workman wrote.

George Terwilliger, of Washington, D.C.-based McGuire Woods and one of the governor’s attorneys, argued in October that he agreed the constitution requires the governor to reside in Charleston, but what it meant to reside — how much time he spent in Charleston, working or otherwise — was at Justice’s discretion.

Terwilliger previously served as a U.S. attorney, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, and later served as deputy attorney general and acting attorney general for President George H.W. Bush. Justice also is represented by Michael Carey and David Pogue, of Carey, Scott, Douglas & Kessler, in Charleston.

The court sided with Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, who sued the governor about his residency in 2018, and disagreed with Justice’s take on the matter.

Sponaugle is a Democrat from Pendleton County and an attorney. He filed the lawsuit against the Republican governor as a private citizen, not as a delegate or on behalf of the House of Delegates.

When the constitution says the governor “shall” reside in the seat of state government, it was a mandate, in keeping with the legal understanding of “shall,” Sponaugle said.

When the Supreme Court heard arguments in this case in October, Sponaugle said there is a commonly accepted understanding of what it means when someone says they reside in a certain place, and he wanted the court to establish that understanding as the legal definition of “reside.”

The court agreed with Sponaugle and determined that, according to Section 1, Article 7 of the West Virginia Constitution, “‘reside’ means to live, primarily, at the seat of government and requires that the executive officials’ principal place of physical presence is the seat of government for the duration of his or her term of office.”

Executive officials, including the governor, whom the constitution says must reside at the seat of government should establish the seat of government as their “home base,” Jenkins wrote.

“The seat of government is so named for the purpose of convening the government in one place to ensure that the government runs smoothly and efficiently and that matters of distance or disconnectedness would not serve to disrupt that efficiency,” Jenkins wrote. “Certainly, the Governor, like other executive officials, exercises his duties outside the confines of the seat of government; it is, after all, a statewide office with the majority of the State being located outside the seat of government. Therefore, it goes without saying that complying with a constitutional provision to reside at the seat of government does not require officials to never step outside Charleston city limits as the Governor seemingly implies.”

Pfizer and BioNTech apply for regulatory clearance of their coronavirus vaccine

Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, applied Friday for emergency authorization of their coronavirus vaccine, a landmark moment and a signal that a powerful tool to help control the pandemic could start to be available by late December.

The U.S. race to develop a vaccine has set scientific speed records since it launched in January, and the submission of a first application to regulators cements that. Now, that effort will move to its next, deliberative phase — a weekslong process in which career scientists at the FDA scrutinize the data and determine whether the vaccine is safe and effective to be used in a broad population.

“It is with great pride and joy, and even a little relief, that I can say our request for emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine is now in the FDA’s hands,” Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said in a video message shared by the company. “This is a historic day — a historic day for science and for all of us.”

Only after the FDA has given the green light will a first, limited group of high-risk people be able to access the shots. Government officials anticipate having enough vaccine to inoculate about 20 million people with the two-dose regimen in the United States in December, between Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine and a second shot likely to be considered for emergency authorization soon, from biotechnology company Moderna.

The United States will receive about half of the 50 million doses Pfizer is aiming to produce by the end of the year.

There will probably be enough vaccine for 25 million to 30 million people a month in early 2021, according to Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser for Operation Warp Speed, the federal government initiative to quicken vaccine development. He did not specify how many doses each company would contribute.

Glimpses of the Pfizer data through news releases have exceeded expectations: The two-dose vaccine regimen was 95% effective at preventing the disease in clinical trials and had no major safety problems, according to the company. It was 94% effective in people older than 65, a group of critical concern because older people are more likely to develop life-threatening illness after contracting the virus.

The companies also are submitting two months of follow-up data on 38,000 of the 44,000 people in the trial. They will present safety data on 100 children between 12 and 15 years old, a group they only recently began to include in their trial.

Those findings will be scrutinized by regulators — including at a full-day advisory committee meeting in which external scientists will meet to make recommendations to the agency on whether it should clear the vaccine for broader use.

The companies have started applications that are updated continuously with other regulators, including those for the European Union and the United Kingdom. The drugmakers said they will submit applications in other countries within days. They are poised to distribute the first doses of vaccine within hours of a regulatory decision.

The hope that many scientists and physicians feel about unprecedented scientific success in developing an effective vaccine has been tempered by a grim reality. No vaccine will arrive in time to alter the current surge of the virus, as hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, testing capacity is stretched and intensive care units fill with sick people — right before holidays that could spark even more outbreaks.

“My message to the American people is to hang in there with us,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a briefing Thursday. “Take the simple steps that the doctors have talked about today, because there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This isn’t forever.”

On Wednesday, Pfizer announced that its 44,000-person vaccine trial had hit the necessary endpoints for safety and efficacy and that it could file for emergency authorization within days. The vaccine was 95% effective at preventing disease in the large clinical trial and Pfizer and BioNTech had gathered sufficient safety data to support an application, with no major safety problems identified.

Half of the participants in Pfizer’s trial received two doses of the study vaccine, and half received two shots of simple saline as a placebo. Then, the investigators waited to see which participants fell ill as they were exposed to the virus in their normal lives.

Of 170 COVID-19 cases so far, 162 were in the placebo group — a strong signal that the vaccine protected people. Nine in 10 cases of severe illness were in the placebo group, another strong sign the vaccine protected against mild and serious cases. The most common adverse event rated as “severe” in the trial was fatigue, in 3.7% of participants after the second dose.

An emergency authorization for a vaccine is typically a lower standard than full approval. Still, FDA guidelines sought to set a high standard for a vaccine, even under emergency authorization. That guidance required a vaccine to be at least 50% effective, with a minimum of two months of safety data on half the participants.

There are concerns the encouraging news on a vaccine could backfire and make it harder to persuade people to participate in ongoing clinical trials that are needed to test other vaccine candidates, which will be critical in making enough vaccine for the entire population.

William Hartman, an anesthesiologist running a trial of the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin, said that, about 20 times a day, he and others working on the trial are asked whether a volunteer could receive a different vaccine that receives authorization sooner. Recently, staff have had to scramble to fill slots that have opened because of last-minute cancellations.

Hartman said he fears that convincing people to volunteer for a trial in which they have a 50-50 chance of receiving a placebo could become even harder once any vaccine receives authorization.

“I do worry about the numbers declining, because it’s going to take way more than one vaccine or two vaccines to cover the population of the world,” Hartman said. “We’re going to need several of these candidates to come forward.”

Hartman said he also is worried that people hearing good news about a vaccine won’t be prepared for what is coming. In Dane County, Wisconsin, where he works, coronavirus cases have exploded, matching in one month the total in the previous eight months. His hospital hasn’t run out of capacity, but it is a constant concern, particularly with Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s likely to seed a new surge of cases.

“Even with this exciting news of these vaccines, it’s still going to be a dark couple of months here,” Hartman said. “There’s a lot of people who are going to be celebrating with their families and other people outside of their immediate bubble, and I think that a vaccine, in no way, is going to help with that right now.”