Some Dewey Beach bars take weekend break as virus concerns grow
DEWEY BEACH – As the governor expressed concern over a growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state and announced that he was delaying additional loosening of restrictions on businesses in turn, several well-known bars and restaurants have closed their doors temporarily.
Steve Montgomery, owner of the iconic Starboard restaurant and bar in Dewey Beach, announced Friday morning that he was closing the restaurant and bar, as well as its sister Starboard Raw location, until Tuesday, June 30. He confirmed to Delaware Business Times that a handful of Starboard employees have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, and he’s awaiting test results of all 100 or so of his staff members now.
“It became a bit of a domino effect,” Montgomery said, referring to employees getting tested after coming into contact with known cases.
State health officials advised him that the best course of action would be to test all employees, which led Montgomery to decide to close the businesses in order to wait out the results of Friday’s tests. Those results are expected back by Monday at the latest.
Montgomery stressed that his businesses have been holding a high standard of cleanliness and social distancing – and a recent Delaware Division of Public Health inspection confirmed that compliance – but that the reality of the summer Dewey Beach lifestyle makes preventing transmission of the virus difficult. Employees of beach businesses often live in large rentals with several other workers.
“Even though you’re doing everything right in terms of all the protocols and training, you can’t monitor what these kids are doing at home,” he said.
The decision to close temporarily comes less than a month after the Starboard reopened June 1 amid Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan, when the out-of-state quarantine was lifted. Now into Phase 2, the state’s occupancy limits have risen and crowds are returning to the beach communities.
While perhaps the most high-profile example, Starboard is not alone in its decision to close, as Hammerheads Dockside owners Cohen Sade and George Bendler announced Friday that they would also close their Dewey and Rehoboth Beach locations.
“Conditions are rapidly changing and the uncertainty of our surroundings is increasing every minute. Out of caution, we are closing to ensure the health and safety of our staff, guests and local community,” they wrote on the restaurants’ and bars’ Facebook page, which does not say when they might reopen.
Jimmy O’Conor, owner of Woody’s Bar & Grill, also ended his Dewey Beach establishment’s dine-in service for now.
“It’s not a decision I take lightly and the safety and well-being of my staff and customers outweighs all other decisions,” O’Conor wrote in a Wednesday Facebook post.
By Saturday, Grotto Pizza, Nalu, and The Blue Hen restaurant all announced that they were closing locations in the beach communities. Grotto closed the dining room at its Dewey Beach restaurant and bar, limiting operations to carry-out and patio service, and said the bar and dining room will be closed until Monday. The Blue Hen restaurant closed after two people tested positive for COVID-19 and Nalu closed its Dewey restaurant, but not its Rehoboth Beach one.
Carol Everhart, president and CEO of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, said Friday that she is not aware of any Rehoboth establishments closing or restricting dining.
Everhart said that beach businesses are frustrated by a number of customers who are not abiding by guidelines set by the state, including social distancing and the wearing of face masks.
“There are people who are following the rules to the T, and there are people who are not,” she said. “I think our businesses are doing everything they can do, but people following the rules is independent of that.”
In a Wednesday Facebook post, The Purple Parrot restaurant and bar in Rehoboth Beach pleaded with patrons to wear a mask and criticized the minority of customers who have tried to oppose guidance.
“We didn’t create the situation we are all in, we are just trying to get through it. Whether we agree with it or not, it’s the law, and for better or worse, we are following it,” the restaurant wrote in a detailed message about why its employees and customers needed to be protected. “Wear a mask or walk on by.”
Montgomery, of The Starboard, said that his businesses saw very good compliance from customers through the daytime after they reopened, but attitudes became laxer later into the night, especially after patrons had been drinking. That convinced him to start closing The Starboard at 11 p.m. just three days into reopening in order to curb that risk.
“You have to be strict,” he said, adding that all restaurant and bar owners are learning how to deal with the “new normal” responsibly.
With the Fourth of July holiday weekend approaching in a week, it is an opportune time for businesses to take a step back and try to tamp down on the virus’s spread – hopefully avoiding further restrictions ahead of a lucrative time of year. Montgomery said that the holiday weekend was definitely on his mind, and worth taking the revenue hit of closing this weekend.
“I am always trying to do what is right for the longevity and the reputation of our business and the safety of our employees and our customers,” he said, noting he was trying to be proactive in his decision-making. “It’s already been a hard year and [closing for a weekend] isn’t going to make it better or worse. It’s just going to be a tough year for everybody.”
Gov. John Carney has already delayed an announcement on when the state would enter Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan, which is yet to be defined but would push occupancy limits higher than the current 60% limit. The governor said Thursday night that he expects to decide on Phase 3 early next week after getting “a better handle on what’s going on in Delaware and around the country.”
As of Friday evening, 83 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in the state, 15 of whom were in critical condition. That is a slightly higher level of hospitalized patients than last week, which also correlates to the increasing level of patients testing positive for the virus. The five-day average on Wednesday was about double the average from two weeks prior, but it continues to fluctuate on a day-to-day basis.
The Delaware Division of Public Health also announced last week that eight teens who attended Senior Week parties in Dewey Beach had contracted the COVID-19 virus. The state subsequently recommended any teen who attended such parties get tested.
Carney said that he was awaiting the results of a testing event at Rehoboth Beach that would help state officials to determine infection rates in the state’s coastal communities. That data, along with reports of compliance of with public health requirements like mask-wearing and social distancing, will guide the governor’s determination in the changing of phases. He has repeatedly said in recent days that he is not seeing the amount of compliance that he wants.
Saying that Delaware is “beating this disease,” Carney made clear that he does not want to see a spike in cases.
“We’ve seen what has happened in other states when folks let their guard down. Let’s not be one of those states,” he said.
Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and South Carolina reported their highest single-day totals on Wednesday, but case numbers have been rising in more than 20 states. On Friday, Texas and Florida ordered bars closed due to their spike in cases.
By Jacob Owens and Peter Osborne