Restaurants cautious to ease safety restrictions, despite governor's executive order

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Lauren Mcdonald, The Brunswick News, Ga.
·6 min read
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Apr. 9—During his 12 years as owner of Driftwood Bistro, Dan Dickerson has faced his fair share of struggles.

His Jekyll Island restaurant survived the 2009 financial crisis, two hurricanes and other temporary closures. Then came the pandemic.

"I don't think the devil can throw anything else at us that we can't work through," Dickerson said. "But he's making it tough."

Restaurants and other parts of the hospitality and tourism industry have been among the hardest hit businesses throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In Georgia alone, around 82,000 people lost jobs last year in the leisure and hospitality sector, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

Many are hoping for an industry rebound this year, though, as millions are vaccinated daily and the country slowly begins to reopen.

To spur an increase in activity in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp rolled back numerous distancing restrictions in the state this week.

An executive order that took effect Thursday lifted a spacing restriction for restaurants and bars, which are now allowed to seat patrons at least 3.5 feet from each other instead of the previous 6-foot requirement.

Several local restaurant owners said Thursday they are taking a slow and steady approach to easing up on their own precautions rather than making immediate changes in response to the governor's announcement.

Island Jerk on Newcastle Street in downtown Brunswick began offering a dine-in option again about a month ago, and owner Bernie Gendron is considering moving back to dine-in plating soon.

"Right now, all the food is served in take out containers, even if they dine in," she said. "But we're considering going back to the plates. We're just waiting to see how this is all going to roll down."

Her customers are ready for a return to normalcy, as is Gendron.

"As a restaurant owner, I'm anxious for a little bit of a glimmer of normalcy," she said.

The lifted restrictions will give Georgia Sea Grill in the bustling Pier Village on St. Simons more flexibility for seating at its bar, said owner Zach Gowen. But the restaurant will keep its protocols in place to ensure that staff and customers continue to feel safe, he said.

"We're going to go by our own guidelines, which is going to be stricter than Kemp's," Gowen said. "We're going to be in control. We're not going to do it until we feel entirely safe as a restaurant."

Tables at Georgia Sea Grill are spaced six feet apart. Plexiglass separates booths, and employees wear masks when they interact with patrons.

The restaurant is currently operating at about 60 percent capacity, Gowen said. And for the past several months, there's been no shortage of business.

"It's crazy how the business model has shifted," he said. "Takeout, we never really did that before, but now it's 5-10 percent of the sales some nights."

Georgia Sea Grill will continue requiring reservations, and Gowen said more customers are willing now to take earlier or later reservations.

"We've got such a flow now that it's all spread out and it's actually quite nice," he said. "It's a lot less stressful on the kitchen and with our staff. And the guests get a better experience."

The easing of restrictions at the state level does not address the widespread issue of understaffing that many restaurants and other businesses are facing.

Business owners are challenged to meet their staffing needs for a variety of reasons. Some potential employees are opting instead to file for unemployment and receive COVID-19 relief money from the government. Others continue to have concerns about the threat of becoming sick or spreading the virus to others.

This leaves many restaurants severely understaffed at a time when more people are choosing to dine out. The governor's executive order does not change that.

Driftwood Bistro's tables are spaced about six feet apart, and Dickerson does not plan to make any changes to that setup or to his operating hours based on the governor's recent announcement. He doesn't have enough staff to handle more customers.

The restaurant is currently open five days a week for four hours a day. And still, staff are overloaded with work.

"We have been flooded with business," Dickerson said. "It's really, really good. We just don't have the personnel to handle it."

About 30 percent of Dickerson's staff left at the start of the pandemic. And when CARES Act funding began for those on unemployment, he said retaining staff became even more challenging.

"They can make more money sitting at home not working than they can actually working," he said. "And I get that, I really do. But at some point in time, what's going to happen is small businesses are going to do a reduction in force to include modified operating hours."

He predicted that future work opportunities will shrink in response to the staffing challenges many small business owners are facing today.

Certified Burger and Beverage on St. Simons is also significantly understaffed, said owner Dave Carrier. But business is booming nonetheless.

"The past two nights we've had the volume that would require at least two more people in the kitchen and at least two more people on the floor. And I don't have it," he said. "And it requires everybody to put their head down and just keep going. They've been troopers."

Carrier has seen his staff pivot and adapt to the pandemic's demands.

Despite being understaffed and working during a time when it may be more advantageous not to, the staff at Certified have invested great energy into keeping the restaurant open, Carrier said.

"These guys are coming in on their days off, they're working extra hours," he said. "They're treating this restaurant as if it's their own, and I'm really thankful for that."

To meet customer needs, Certified added an outdoor patio area. It did not add to its overall number of tables but did reduce the number of seats lost because of the prior spacing requirements.

Most customers are not ready to dine in a closely packed room, Carrier said.

"There is still a comfort level that our guests have, and it makes no sense if I load people in if people aren't comfortable," he said.

As restrictions are lifted, challenges faced by restaurants will not go away overnight. Shuttered eateries across the country, many of which were institutions in their area, stand out as a testament to how hard this year has been on the industry.

"We're pretty lucky," Carrier said. "But at the end of the day, it's very difficult right now. We're in a very difficult time."