ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) – Dave Byrley opened Iconic Kitchen and Drinks in 2020 near McCormick Field, banking on the soon-to-come traffic from the ballfield and under-construction condos.
“There’s no way I could have predicted a global pandemic,” he said.
Byrley signed a lease right before COVID-19 brought staples of American life like baseball to a grinding halt.
“It’s just been one curveball after another, and I’m just trying to adjust and figure out the best way to make it work,” Byrley said.
The latest curveball is the county’s move to limit restaurants’ indoor capacity to 30% as of Jan. 2, a number that includes staff but not outdoor seating. For Byerly, that means he can host around 25 customers inside.
As a result, it’s nearly impossible to make a profit, he said. Iconic has so far been ineligible for COVID relief since it opened in 2020. Byrley hasn’t paid himself in six months.
“Now that they’ve cut our capacity down to 30%, it’s getting to the point where we wonder is it even worth it to continue to do this?” he said. “Are we willing to make this work?”
Iconic’s lead server, Jennifer Hilbert, is one of the many local restaurant workers worried about the future.
“Iconic is one of the few places in Asheville that pays a living wage to its servers, which is phenomenal,” she said.
A single mother of two boys, ages 3 and 14, Hilbert said she and the staff live in a state of anxiety.
“When that 30% came down, it was like someone shot us in the heart,” she said.
Even if the restaurant is full from the time it opens until county curfew, there’s almost no way to break even, she said.
“We’re just going on a day by day thing,” Hilbert said.
“PEOPLE ARE GOING INTO RUIN”
Hilbert said it would take three weeks without pay for her family to lose everything.
“We are so heavily dependent on the day-to-day cash flow that it would not take long at all to run out of diapers, not be able to pay the Charter internet bill so my son can go to school,” she said. “It’s a very quick domino effect.”
Restaurant workers face an uncertain winter, with many living without insurance, sick pay, 401Ks or savings.
“So now we’re living in a constant state of fear,” Hilbert said. “It seems like the good guys, the little guys, we are going to be squished. People are going to absolutely go into ruin, and it’s terrifying.”
Stopgaps like takeout, which the CDC says is safer than indoor dining, are not as profitable for restaurants as in-house service, especially since third-party apps like UberEats and Doordash charge restaurants for the service.
“They also tip the driver and not us, even though we’re the people who bagged it and tagged it,” Hilbert said.
And although a recent state measure allows restaurants to serve takeout cocktails, it is restrictive.
“To follow all of these rules, to really do it correctly, most bars aren’t designed to handle a program like that,” said Paul Cressend, who works in the kitchen at RosaBees.
Cressend works just enough hours to qualify for unemployment benefits. With rumors of shutdowns still to come, there’s no telling what the future holds, he said.
“I’m majorly concerned, of course,” he said. “You see restaurants all over town closing down week after week, then reopening, then changing their schedules.”
Restrictions keep restaurants from doing what they were built at great cost to do, Cressend said.
“Adding restrictions to keep us healthy is costing us our livelihood,” he said.
THE FIGHT OVER RESTAURANTS’ COVID CULPABILITY
In a Dec. 23 statement, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Brownie Newman said the county’s decision to focus on capacity limits for restaurants stems from their unique model.
“Having people from different households sitting around a table together indoors just a few feet from one another for 30 minutes or an hour or longer without masks is the perfect environment for the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
One oft-cited CDC study says people who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten at restaurants.
But that CDC study compared only 154 COVID-positive people to 160 negative-testing patients. Nearly half who tested positive reported close contact with a person infected with COVID-19.
However, a study of cellphone data from 10 metro areas from March to May found dining in a restaurant was about four times riskier than going to a gym or a coffee shop. Hotels and motels were also listed among the top-five high risk areas.
Faced with closed restaurant dining rooms, people still gather inside.
A recent New York-based study examining 46,000 data points gathered by contact tracers between September-November found 74% of the state’s COVID spread came from household gatherings, compared to the less than 2% from restaurants and bars. Gov. Andrew Cuomo attributed that to people gathering at home because many indoor establishments had been closed.
On the other hand, the Washington, DC, government released data that showed 14% of COVID-19 outbreaks from August through November in that city were traced back to restaurants and bars, about the same as child care centers and behind only colleges and schools.
North Carolina’s weekly cluster report also shows thousands of infections from schools, universities, church gatherings and meat processing plants since COVID began.
Buncombe County businesses are not required to report positive COVID-19 cases on their premises, county Health and Human Services communications specialist Brandon Romstadt said in July. But as of Jan. 4, the state has 204 clusters related to universities and traced 37 to North Carolina restaurants and bars.
The county has declined to answer a number of Citizen Times questions regarding whether any clusters could be tied to local restaurants.
County spokespeople have said restaurant-capacity limits will be revisited in mid-January.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR LOCAL RESTAURANTS?
Without assistance, Byrley isn’t sure how long he can manage the costs of running a restaurant in a pandemic.
“I’m not sure how it’s all going to play out,” he said. “I would love to tell you it’ll be fine, but there are tons of places who say ‘we can’t do this’ who are closing down the next six to eight weeks.”
Restaurants that recently announced temporary closures include Jargon in West Asheville, Avenue M and Smoky Park Supper Club.
Jargon co-owner Sean Piper said there’s power in closing in the midst of uncertainty.
Piper hopes to reopen his dining room eventually and has plans to relaunch a takeout program. But for now, 30% of his indoor capacity is 14, a number canceled by the staff on most nights.
“Everyone wants to work, and everyone needs money, so who do I punish?” Piper said. “They might as well get unemployment, so that was the call I made – let’s get these guys ahead of the game and collecting unemployment.”
With the help of Small Business Administration loans, Piper spent nearly a million dollars buying and renovating Jargon’s site. He said in 2020, he spent thousands on parklets the NCDOT made him tear down and tens of thousands on PPE and a retractable patio roof.
Now, sitting on the board of the Asheville Independent Restaurant association, Piper expressed his frustrations with the county’s lack of communication.
He said he hasn’t seen anyone from the health department in months.
“No one’s coming in to see what we’re doing, how we’re following the CDC rules – nothing,” he said.
Restaurant owners and staff, he said, have been left to adapt to an ever-growing list of demands with little support, while other businesses flout the rules with few repercussions.
“I respect the rule of law, even though I know of other restaurants that don’t,” he said. “There’s no system, no enforcement, and those following the rules who don’t have cases are the ones getting punished, and that’s frustrating to me.”
In an email to county officials shared with the Citizen Times, Blackbird co-owner John Tressler said he temporarily shuttered his restaurant and furloughed 30 employees as a result of the new mandates. He implored the county to offer assistance to impacted workers.
He acknowledged the devastation caused by COVID.
“However, we also wanted to let you know that, to maintain our business at 30% is not possible,” he wrote.
Tressler said his restaurant had been open for dine-in service since June 5 with no on-premise COVID issues.
On the plus side, he said, he was able to donate almost 300 pounds of perishables to MANNA FoodBank.
North Asheville’s Avenue M has also closed temporarily, but executive chef Andrew McLeod said the decision was made before new county mandates were announced.
Not only did it feel like the safest thing to do, he said, it helped him manage perishable inventory and plan for the extreme cost of restocking once the restaurant reopens.
The chef said 2020 has been the toughest of his career, in part because of its extreme unpredictability in an already unpredictable business.
“You throw what you can to the wall and see what sticks, and if nothing sticks, you’re caught holding the bag,” he said. “It takes a real psychological toll.”
So does pouring your all into an industry called “unsafe” from all sides.
“Restaurants are being targeted in a real legit way,” said McLeod.
He believes county officials want to point to anti-COVID action. It’s easier to restrict businesses than it is to manage people in their own homes, he said.
“But it would have been more constructive to have a dialogue about what this would entail,” he said.
The restrictions’ squeeze on restaurant staff particularly sting given the sacrifices industry workers make every day, he added.
“We’re always working on holidays, never having time for our families and a social life because of the nature of our work,” he said. “And when the shoe is on the other foot, making a sacrifice to save us doesn’t seem like it’s really important, and that really hurts.”
He urged county residents to support the restaurants that remain open.
A leader of the local Ben’s Friends chapter, a restaurant-industry specific group for professionals who want to work toward or maintain sobriety, McLeod also urged workers who need help to reach out.
“Right now, all of us are just trying to figure out how not to make this worse,” he said.
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