In one of the most WTF moments of the pandemic, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced that restaurants can resume dine-in service on Monday, April 27, with stricter health and safety protocols in place. These new protocols are expected to be released later this week, but should include screening employees for fevers and COVID-19 symptoms, requiring workers to wear gloves and masks, staggering shifts, and mandating a distance of six feet or more between workstations.
This stunning piece of news came during a late Monday afternoon press conference, as Kemp stood at a podium in Liberty Plaza near the state capitol, declaring that Georgia will “control its own destiny” in terms of the economy.
But what about the destinies of people who now face a choice: return to work and risk their health — possibly their lives — or remain home and risk financial ruin, including the possible loss of unemployment benefits.
Restaurant owners across Atlanta were quick to react to the news, with some questioning the reopening date. April 27 comes four days before Georgia’s shelter-in-place order expires, and five days ahead of the May 1 reopening guideline set by the Trump administration. COVID-19 cases are expected to reach beyond 20,000 within the next 24 hours.
Jen and Emily Chan, the owners of JenChan’s Restaurant and Supper Club in Cabbagetown, say they won’t reopen on Monday. Emily Chan is still grieving the loss of her uncle who died from complications due to COVID-19 in a Georgia nursing home.
“We will not put our staff or the rest of our community at risk by reopening to the public Monday,” Chan tells Eater Atlanta. “I hope our entire restaurant community can unite against this. We will continue takeout and delivering, but we cannot risk a second wave when the first wave is still happening.”
Chan says the restaurant is struggling, even with their prepared meals delivery service helping to buoy the business. The couple applied for the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) on the very first day. Money ran out before their emergency loan could be approved.
“We desperately want to put our food on a plate instead of in a box, but it isn’t worth the cost,” says Chan. “This has been heartbreaking for us, and we have suffered economic and real personal loss. We won’t be a part of adding to that suffering.”
Chef Deborah VanTrece, owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours on Atlanta’s west side, also doesn’t plan to reopen her dining room on Monday. VanTrece closed dine-in service at the restaurant in March because she and her staff did not feel they could safely and effectively control people’s actions in the dining room.
Of the 25 people she once employed at Twisted Soul, four remain on a part-time basis. The restaurant’s sales are down by nearly 90 percent. Despite applying early for the PPP and other small business loans and grants, VanTrece says she’s not received any emergency funding yet.
“I will continue to assess the situation over the next few weeks and pay close attention to experts, not politicians,” VanTrece says of when she will feel comfortable reopening the dining room at Twisted Soul.
VanTrece and her small staff are currently serving takeout food a few days a week from the Huff Road restaurant, and have implemented a “pay what you can” option for customers facing financial difficulties due to layoffs or a reduction in pay.
Jarina Naone and Rosa Thurnher, the owners of Poncey-Highland Mexican restaurant El Ponce, say reopening dining rooms right now is “unsafe and irresponsible” and plan to continue with takeout and delivery for the foreseeable future.
“There hasn’t been enough testing done, and from what we have seen reported cases are still rising in our city and state,” Naone says. “We will continue to monitor what the Mayor and medical community recommend, as well as what we and our team feel comfortable with.”
Following the governor’s press conference yesterday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms responded by issuing an administrative order to convene an advisory council to determine how to safely reopen the city. She continues to ask Atlanta residents to remain home, and questioned Kemp’s decision to reopen businesses and restaurants in an interview with ABC News Prime and CNN on Monday night.
Naone feels there are financial and political motivations behind Kemp’s rush to reopen certain businesses in Georgia, and says the “loud protests of a few were the basis of a decision that will affect many.”
Buttermilk Kitchen owner chef Suzanne Vizethann won’t open the dining room at her popular Buckhead brunch restaurant for at least another month, relying instead on takeout and catering to stay afloat.
“We simply do not feel safe, nor are we ready to open back up in three short days of getting the news,” the chef tells Eater. “Personally, I am surprised if anyone will be able to open their doors back up that quickly. The most important thing to us is the safety and sanity of our employees.”
Justin and Jonathan Fox of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q say nothing would “excite” them more than to return to business as usual at their Candler Park barbecue restaurant, but to do so would be “reckless”.
“We will continue to work with fellow business leaders and our staff to find that comfort to open our dining room to the community,” the Foxes say. “We have had tremendous support from the community the last month and a half and their safety is important to us.”
For now, the brothers plan to remain open for takeout and delivery only, and continue to follow the advice of the CDC. They’re watching for marked decreases in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations before even considering reopening for dine-in service.
With restaurant dining rooms allowed to reopen on Monday, and businesses like tattoo parlors, bowling alleys, nail and hair salons, and gyms reopening this Friday, there are real questions surrounding the health and safety of workers and patrons. PPE masks and other protective gear, like plastic gloves, are in short supply, and simply moving tables further apart and staggering shifts may not be enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in restaurant dining rooms.
VanTrece puts it into perspective, “The position we have been put in [by Kemp] is unfathomable. Save your business or save your life?”
Stay home if sick. Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for guidance and twice-daily updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases.