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Coronavirus Hospitality News

Extended COVID-19 closure threatens many Delaware restaurants

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Charcoal Pit on Concord Pike is among the restaurants that are accepting takeout orders. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CAPANO MANAGEMENT

Restaurants across Delaware are choosing to close their doors completely following Gov. John Carney’s decision to limit restaurants, bars and taverns to take-out, drive-thru and delivery services and have their liquor licenses suspended for what the governor’s spokesman, Jonathan Starkey, said will be “eight weeks or until this passes.”

Big Fish Restaurant Group will close seven of its 10 restaurants, with the other three — Big Fish Market in Rehoboth, Washington Street Ale House in Wilmington, and Mikimoto’s in Wilmington — offering takeout. Mikimoto’s will also offer delivery through Uber Eats, according to the restaurant group’s vice president, Holly Monaco.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and we’re just working through it day-by-day,” she said. “Until further notice, all salaried employees will be paid, but our hourly employees will have to go through state [unemployment].”

Carney’s updated emergency declaration — which takes effect at 8 p.m. tonight — also bans public gatherings of 50 or more people, consistent with updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and closes gambling at Delaware casinos.

Later in the day, Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Commissioner John Cordrey notified on-premises licensees that their licenses to serve or sell alcohol is suspended, and that “on-premises licensees may only provide food and non-alcoholic beverage service through take-out, drive-thru, and off-premises delivery.” The ABC was not available for comment.

Delaware Restaurant Association (DRA) President and CEO Carrie Leishman said delivery and takeout will not sustain many restaurants in their efforts to pay their mortgages and workers, and that the extended closure could result in many not reopening, particularly if the ban extends through the busy Easter and Mother’s Day holidays in April and May.

“It’s a real problem today, we don’t even have to get to that eight-week point,” said Big Fish’s Monaco. “It’s one of the most difficult things we’ve had to do, especially when you have 700 employees, but people did see it coming because of what’s been happening elsewhere.”

“Many don’t have off-premises alcohol licenses – which is a big source of profits – and they don’t naturally have delivery insurance unless they already deliver, so that means servers can’t be used to deliver,” she said.

Leishman added that the DRA has been working “around the clock representing every corner of the state to ensure state government understands the potential impact of the decision” and to urge its members “to aggressively use their voices and their employees’ voices” to receive disaster assistance from the state and federal governments.

Starkey said the state is applying for emergency assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration through the state Division of Small Business and is looking for other opportunities.

Meanwhile, the list of restaurants choosing to close their doors altogether continues to mount.

“Closing our restaurant locations was a logical step during this outbreak. Swift action was needed to ensure the safety of our workers and the community,” said Louis Capano III, CEO of Capano Management, which owns the Columbus Inn and two Charcoal Pits in New Castle County. “Our next priority is exploring ways to provide food to the community throughout this crisis.”

Capano said all workers will be compensated during the closings until further notice. While the Columbus Inn remains closed, the two Charcoal Pits are open for takeout.

The real problem is the length of time before the restaurants are allowed to reopen for dine-in service.

“These restrictions will hit Delaware’s restaurants and bars especially hard,” Carney conceded in a press release announcing the changes. “Delawareans should continue to support these businesses, and their workers, by ordering take-out or delivery. Restaurants also remain a critical source of food for vulnerable populations. But this is a very serious situation, with a significant amount of uncertainty. If you gather with 50 people or more, you are only increasing the risk that more Delawareans will come in contact with this virus. Let’s not make a challenging situation worse.”

“Every choice we’ve made has been seriously considered as we know they have direct impact on people’s lives,” Capano said. “The incredible loyalty of both our staff and customers is something we’ve never taken for granted. Protecting their health is paramount.”

The governor’s order also gives Delaware’s Secretary of Labor authorization to develop emergency rules to protect Delaware workers and ensure that unemployment benefits are available for Delawareans whose jobs are affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The Delaware Restaurant Association says one out of 10 state employers work in the restaurant industry.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

By Peter Osborne

[email protected]

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