‘We’ve got to get back open’: Restaurant owners frustrated with Ohio’s guidiance

Don’s Pizza on Central Avenue in Middletown has been making improvements to the interior while dine-in services are closed due to coronavirus pandemic. Don’s Pizza is open for carryout and delivery. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF
Don’s Pizza on Central Avenue in Middletown has been making improvements to the interior while dine-in services are closed due to coronavirus pandemic. Don’s Pizza is open for carryout and delivery. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Restaurant and bar owners expressed frustration over the lack of clarity from Gov. Mike DeWine and other state officials last week about when they will be able to fully reopen their dining rooms and pubs again.

Although they acknowledge a difficult road ahead as the state reopens its economy during a novel coronavirus pandemic, there’s still lingering disgruntlement.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said owner Nick Ranson, who opened Don’s Pizza last June. “I didn’t expect it to open on Friday … but I thought there would be some guidance, some direction and there wasn’t.”

While free delivery has helped keep the business afloat, Ranson said nearly 80 percent of the Middletown restaurant’s business comes from dine-in service.

“I was shocked when there was nothing (announced),” he said. “We’ve got to get back open, at least a little bit, in order to survive.”

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When Ohio does set a timeline on re-opening restaurants, Don’s Pizza will do so “in a safe and common-sense way” that will be safe for everybody, Ranson said.

“We don’t want to get sick and we don’t want to get people sick,” he said.

During DeWine’s Monday press conference that unveiled plans and timelines for reopening Ohio, restaurants and bars were not assigned a reopening timeline, nor were daycare centers, gyms, hair salons and barbershops.

“We know there is a great desire to get restaurants fully open and to get hair salons and daycares open — but we must first start down the pathway of opening things up where we thought there was less risk and a more controllable risk,” the governor said.

That wasn’t what many restaurant owners wanted to hear.

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The Ohio Restaurant Association called upon DeWine to “strongly consider giving restaurants two weeks notice and allow restaurants to begin to offer social distanced dine-in service on May 15.”

In a statement released late Monday, following DeWine’s announcement, the association described the state’s restaurants as being “the most devastated” of Ohio’s businesses, “with the current restrictions on dine-in service leading to more than 300,000 restaurant employees being laid off or furloughed and nearly 50 percent of all locations closed.”

“Every week that goes by will claim another percentage of restaurants that will never reopen, jobs that will disappear permanently, and communities that will be left without their local restaurants that are often the cornerstones of their downtowns and neighborhoods and fuel so much economic development,” association officials said. “We are certain the federal relief offered in the CARES Act largely misses the mark for restaurants that are closed or operating at deeply diminished capacity, and with its restrictions, we know the difference between May 15 and June 1 to reopen restaurants for dine-in could be the difference between survival and shuttering for many Ohio restaurants.”

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On Tuesday, DeWine announced the state is creating two safety groups, one for restaurants and the second for barbershops and hair salons, to study and make recommendations on how those businesses can reopen safely.

Shanon Morgan — president of the Miami Valley Restaurant Association, which has no affiliation with the Ohio Restaurant Association — said she was “a little surprised, and a little disappointed, that restaurants were not addressed at all” in the reopening timelines laid out.

“For bars and restaurants, there still is no end to this. It’s terrifying,” Morgan said.

Phillip Wong, owner and executive chef of High Street Cafe in Hamilton also said he “kind of expected” the restaurant industry would be “skipped over,” but he was still “upset as well because you want to get back to the grind.”

“I’d rather be serving the people in the community like we have been doing for almost five years … but half the stores around me are closed as it is,” Wong said. “Half the employees don’t even work down there anymore.”

Wong said he offered carry-out for a few days following Ohio’s mandated dine-in shutdown, but ended that option and furloughed the family-owned shop’s eight employees when he saw that people were not respecting each other’s boundaries.

Economic aid via the city of Hamilton has helped sustain the cafe. “That was very generous of the city and very quick on (their part),” Wong said. “I tip my hat to them.”

He said he believes the cafe would struggle financially if it were to reopen with only carry-out at this point.

But many other restaurants changed their business model to become, temporarily, carryout-and-delivery destinations, which have been permitted under the state’s shelter-at-home orders.

Several restaurants that have been closed for weeks have either reopened or are gearing up to reopen for carryout, perhaps as a dress rehearsal for a fuller reopening in the weeks or months ahead. Three more Butler County restaurants joined that list in the past nine days: Fretboard Brewing & Public House in Hamilton, Hyde’s Restaurant in Hamilton and Gracie’s in Middletown.

No firm answer on when Ohio would lift its dine-in restrictions seemed fine with owner George Shteiwi, owner of The Spinning Forchetta in Liberty Twp.

“To be honest, even if they announced the 11th or the 12th of May we are not going to open because I don’t think it’s feasible for people to work with masks in the dining rooms and to take (employees’) temperatures,” he said. “All these guidelines … just don’t make no sense.”

The restaurant has offered its full menu for carry-out since the dine-in shut down began because “we don’t want to tell somebody we can’t serve you this because of the coronavirus,” Shteiwi said.

Restaurants, he said, are meant to be focused around the dine-in experience and customer service.

“You can’t give the customer service with masks and gloves on,” he said. “You’ve got to communicate with the people.”

But the MVRA’s Morgan says most dine-in restaurants are not set up carry-out.

“In the long run, it’s not enough to keep restaurants afloat,” she said.