COLUMBUS, Ohio — Restaurant owners are frustrated that they won’t reopen with retailers on May 12 and rehire the more than 300,000 laid-off Ohio food service workers.
They also want to see a timeline for reopening so they can start to prepare the restaurant and order food.
Gov. Mike DeWine said this week that he is beginning discussions about reopening restaurants, but did not offer a timeline. He said his overall goal is to avoid another surge in coronavirus infections.
“It’s just hard to understand what the thought process is,” said Kamal Boulos, owner of The Refectory restaurant in Columbus said. “I don’t think restaurants are going to pose a greater danger compared to other businesses.”
One restaurant owner, Valter Veliu, isn’t waiting for approval from DeWine. He plans to reopen his Brewery District restaurant, Valter’s at the Maennerchor, at 6 p.m. Friday unless DeWine announces a plan before that.
“I am desperate,” he said. “I am spending $7,400 a week to keep my restaurant going and my employees aren’t working. You can put me in jail. I would rather be locked up and be up and running.”
He said he will have just a few tables spread far enough apart, and he will be serving food himself to guests. Veliu said it’s understandable if people don’t agree with his decision.
“Don’t come to my restaurant,” he said.
John Barker, president of the Ohio Restaurant Association which represents restaurant owners and workers, said he has had ongoing discussions with DeWine’s office seeking clarity and a timeline on reopening.
“Why would retail open and not restaurants,” he said. “We have safer business practices more than any other industry except hospitals. We have regulators that are always looking over our industry and reviewing safety practices.”
Barker said he remains optimistic DeWine will give them an answer soon.
“We have hope,” he said. “Each day, each week can be the difference to a restaurant surviving or not.”
DeWine has dispatched Lt. Gov. Jon Husted to work with restaurants to develop a plan. Husted said this week that he continues to have ongoing discussions with owners.
Husted said he has been handling many other issues such as the public outcry on wearing masks inside businesses.
Barker said data from the state’s unemployment system show that more than 300,000 of the industry’s 585,000 food service workers have been laid off.
Fifty percent of restaurants have closed completely and the ones that are offering carryout or delivery are reporting that sales are down between 20 and 70 percent, Barker said.
It’s expected that 11 percent of restaurants across Ohio will never reopen, according to data from the National Restaurant Association.
Also exacerbating for restaurant owners is that some of them received federal loans to help small businesses but they don’t have the availability to use the funds.
There’s a stipulation in the federal Paycheck Protection Program that in order for the loans to be forgiven the money must be spent within eight weeks, and 75 percent of it must be spent on payroll.
Sheila Trautner, owner of Hubbard Grille in the Short North and three other food service businesses and a retail shop, said she has had to completely close her restaurants.
She received a loan to pay employees but can’t spend the money.
“I could not commend the governor more on how he’s looked out for the safety and health of our community,’ Trautner said. “But I have had to lay off 180 people. It’s definitely a frustrating situation not to be able to reopen and tell people when they can come back to work.”
Barker said many restaurant owners like Trautner are trying to avoid filing for more loans to save their business because they are already over-leveraged.
“I am getting messages and comments every day from restaurant owners that are desperate to reopen because they won’t make it much longer,” Barker said.
One note in particular sticks with Barker and came from a family-owned business
“This has to end soon, or we will not have a restaurant,” the note said. “We are independent, no-investors, family-owned. Our houses are pledged to the loan we got to open. We won’t just lose a business, we’ll lose our money, homes and restaurant property.”
When restaurants do reopen, the public will need some time to become adjusted, Barker said.
The National Restaurant Association last week released a 36-point guidance plan for restaurants to reopen. The guidance is based on recommendations from the Food and Drug Administration.
Most jarring to the public will be the amount of signage instructing them on how to dine — where they can wait for tables to open up or how they pay for their food.
Menus are also a concern, Trautner said. Owners are contemplating using disposable menus or using electronic tablets that can be sanitized.
Boulos, owner of The Refectory, said because of all these recommendations he does not plan to fully reopen right away once DeWine gives the green light to do so.
“I would wait at least 30 days and evaluate how it’s going,” he said. “We have the resources to do this once and if we are not successful we are done. That’s the reality of it.”