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As vaccinations rise and cases fall, restaurants question why limits remain

Katie Tabeling

Despite Gov. John Carney loosening some restrictions on outdoor dining, indoor dining remains capped at 50%. The Delaware Restaurant Association launched a social media campaign to “save our restaurants” and continues to push for a plan to increase capacity. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG FISH GRILL

Delaware has eased some of its restrictions on outdoor dining as the state sees positive COVID-19 cases start to trend down, but restaurant leaders argue the state needs a plan to move dining establishments to greater indoor capacity soon to save their businesses.

Gov. John Carney amended his executive order April 27 to raise the capacity of outdoor dining to 10 people, but indoor dining capacity limits were unchanged. The revision also removes certain requirements around surface cleaning and disinfection, reflecting advances in the scientific community’s understanding about how the virus is spread.

Carney also suspended Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association masking regulations for low-risk sports, but required people in attendance and on the sidelines to still mask up. Delaware still requires people to wear masks while in public.

The governor pointed to the drop of COVID-19 cases and the rising number of Delawareans getting vaccinated as part of the reason for the slightly looser restrictions. The state faced yet another surge in late March and early April linked to “general community spread” and possible Easter gatherings, with cases counting around 300 cases or more per day. Delaware has now averaged around 266 cases per day for the last week, as of April 29.

“My hope is that sooner rather than later [we can have higher indoor capacity at restaurants] but it depends on the data,” Carney said during his April 28 town hall. “There needs to be some improvement in the trajectory first. But let’s be clear, indoor environments have a greater risk of transmission. You know that.”

This marks the 14th month of the pandemic and some sort of capacity limits on businesses, but notably the restaurant community is still capped at 50% indoor capacity as of February. Carrie Leishman, the president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, pointed out the large disparity between small businesses and large outdoor events.

At the end of March, Delaware eased its restrictions on outdoor gatherings, allowing up to 150 people at certain venues to attend weddings, funerals, sporting events, concerts and other events. For the first time since summer 2019, the Dover International Speedway will have fans in the stands come May 14-16. The Delaware Division of Public Health approved Dover International Speedway’s plan to have 20,000 fans attend.

“We have no problem following the guidance, but when there is special access for big spectator events while our restaurants are still struggling with the devastating financial fallout from the past year, it’s simply not an even field,” Leishman said. “We need to have reason, not appeasement, about allowing restaurants to open more fully. We need to have a plan.”

Delaware sticking to 50% indoor dining requirements come at a time when neighboring states have started rolling theirs back. Maryland has lifted hard indoor capacity requirements but still requires social distancing, while Pennsylvania can allow restaurants to open at 75% if they agree to appear on a statewide COVID-compliance registry.

Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, told the Delaware Business Times that the “Monster Mile” will be planning to operate at half its usual capacity, with fans seated in groups but allowing enough space in between them for social distancing. Masks will be required at the races.

“Last year, we offered our fans to take their tickets for the canceled event for 2021. We never stopped selling tickets, so now we’re at a point that we have sold an excess of 20,000 tickets,” Tatoian said. “Now we’re in the process of reaching out to fans to see if they want to come or whether they prefer to get a refund or a credit for 2022. Our fans will tell us how safe they feel.”

According to Dover International Speedway’s 2020 annual report, the company lost $3.8 million in event revenue compared to 2019, including lower corporate sponsorships, merchandise, concession and parking revenues from the races that were postponed in May and later held without fans in August. But broadcasting revenue increased to $35.6 million, as many Americans stayed indoors and opted to watch sports on TV.

“I like to think optimistically, so I never thought we would not be back in 2021,” Tatoian said. “The trends in the data have shown us that case counts and hospitalizations are getting lower and people are getting vaccinated, which made it possible to have some fans. We were challenged last year, but this year will be good, and I believe next year will be even better.”

Meanwhile, Carney said the signs of Delawareans getting vaccinated was encouraging to eventually push Delaware to lowering restrictions. About half of Delaware’s eligible population (16 and older) has received one shot and at least 28% of Delawareans are fully vaccinated. The state announced five walk-in vaccine clinics are offering the two-dose Pfizer vaccine to anyone 16 and older in locations in all three counties.

“The motivation should be that we all get vaccinated, and follow the mitigation rules so we can return to our favorite restaurants faster,” Carney said.

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