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Delaware Restaurant Association launches petition push

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Big Fish Grill posted this photo amid the Delaware Restaurant Association’s social media campaign to draw attention to the financial hit taken by restaurants. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG FISH GRILL

DOVER – The Delaware Restaurant Association (DRA) has launched a two-pronged petition and social media campaign seeking to roll back the COVID-19-spurred restrictions that went into effect Nov. 23, arguing their timing could lead to more business closures and increased job losses.

Spurred by a record number of new coronavirus cases in the state, Gov. John Carney ordered capacity reductions from 60% to 30% for indoor dining, limited the number of adults at a table to four, and required that masks be worn essentially at all times other than actively eating or drinking. The governor also limited attendance of gatherings of all kinds and prohibited youth sports from competing against out-of-state teams as Delaware recorded its highest one-day total of cases yet.

Delaware’s restaurant industry, which has been among the worst hit by the rollercoaster restrictions made by elected officials over the past eight months, sustaining an estimated $900 million loss over the crisis, is pushing back against the latest measures. Restaurateurs and industry leaders argue they have become an easy scapegoat and point out that other industries, especially retail, have not seen the same treatment.

The DRA campaign includes an emailed petition to Carney, who enacted the latest restrictions through an executive order issued Nov. 20, as well as state legislators who have served as liaisons to the public and business owners through the pandemic.

According to DRA President and CEO Carrie Leishman, hundreds of those letters, which ask industry owners and workers to detail the impact of the limits on their businesses and families, have been sent to state leaders, but they want to push that figures into the thousands.

“Your passion and heart should go into sharing how these restrictions will desecrate your business, your livelihoods, and the people you care about,” the industry association says in its petition solicitation. “If you say nothing … no one will know the challenges you face!”

Meanwhile, a concurrent social media campaign has been launched primarily on Instagram, the photo-centric platform that is a favorite for many foodies. The DRA is advising restaurant workers to tag the governor in their posts and use hashtags like #DERestaurantWorkersUnite and #SaveOurJobs, which will also draw the public’s attention to their plight.

The push comes as Leishman and many of the state’s most well-known restaurant group owners question the data that state leaders are depending on and how much of the virus’s spread can be pinned on restaurants while other businesses operate with lesser restrictions.

“We have a lot of our industry members really frustrated over what they felt were the uneven and unfair restrictions on restaurants, when we’re on the eve of Black Friday and holiday shopping and the malls and outlets are packed,” Leishman told Delaware Business Times.

Carney and his administration have expressed their sympathy for the financial impact that restaurants will undoubtedly sustain under the latest measures, but have reiterated that scientific studies and contact tracing indicated restaurants were the source out at least some of Delaware’s growing number of COVID-19 cases.

“I understand this frustration. And everyone loves restaurants. But restrictions aren’t a commentary on restaurant management. It’s the nature of COVID. You have to take your mask off in a restaurant. You sit around others for an extended period of time. Neither is true in retail,” wrote Carney spokesman Jonathan Starkey on Twitter in response to some of the industry’s criticism.

On Monday, Leishman called that one of the “weakest arguments.”

“You’re telling me that a mother with a family of four grocery shopping isn’t spending an hour in the grocery store or a gaggle of teenage girls aren’t shopping in the mall for an afternoon?” she questioned of some of the busier businesses unaffected by the latest orders. “But it’s riskier to go to a lunch for 45 minutes and sit across from a family member?”

When asked about whether the DRA was considering a lawsuit to reverse the latest restrictions, Leishman said that “this industry doesn’t want to go that route.”

Leishman said that the industry was asking the Carney administration for more clarity on the metrics it’s using to determine when to enact restrictions and when to remove them, hypothesizing whether reduced dining capacity would remain even if cases continue to rise over coming weeks, suggesting restaurants aren’t a driver of the virus’s transmission.

“We want to work with our governor, our elected officials and our public health officials. We want transparency and data. We want decisions made based on real metrics,” she added.

In one note of compromise, Leishman said that state officials are allowing restaurants to serve Thanksgiving reservations made in advance of the new restrictions up to 60% capacity, preventing owners from having to pick and choose which reservations to cancel. Leishman also thanked Carney for allocating $25 million more toward the DE Relief grant fund that aids businesses impacted by the pandemic, but she noted that far more financial aid will be needed into 2021 to keep many restaurants afloat.

By Jacob Owens

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