New rules take bite out of dining

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The Illinois Department of Public Health announced on Sept. 2 that “in excess” of 1,400 of the state’s coronavirus cases in the last 60 days had been traced back to bars and restaurants. 

That means from July 5 to Sept. 6, over 1.5 percent of the 91,396 cases in Illinois were traced to those types of businesses.

The IDPH made that announcement, at least in part, to justify the state’s recent order closing all metro east bars and restaurants for indoor service for two weeks as it looks to slow the spread of the virus in the region that often has the highest positivity rate in Illinois. 

The new restrictions are the latest for an industry among the hardest hit by the pandemic, including in Monroe County. 

“It’s definitely had a negative impact,” said Ray Boccardi of Joe Boccardi’s restaurant in Columbia of the pandemic’s effects. “Business is still down because a lot of consumers are still not comfortable going inside. Fortunately for us, our carry-out business has still been pretty good, but we’re not near where we normally would be.” 

The severity of the hit on restaurants and bars varies from establishment to establishment, with some owners who spoke to the Republic-Times saying they have fared better while others saying they have fared worse. 

“It’s definitely impacted us on the customer base and the sales base,” said co-owner Anthony Hassler of Shorty’s Smokehouse in Waterloo before explaining sales are at 40 percent of normal volume. 

Indoor dining and drinking was prohibited in Illinois until the state entered the fourth phase of its reopening plan June 26. 

For over three months, restaurants and bars had to make ends meet as best they could with only carry-out, drive-thru and delivery service. 

That forced many businesses to enact cost-saving measures like reducing hours and staff. 

When indoor dining and drinking did reopen, it appeared sales might turn a corner. 

“It was not all the way back to normal, but it was certainly close,” said Matt Schweizer, founder, operating partner and brewer at Hopskeller Brewing in Waterloo. “Obviously, you still have a lot of people who are understandably concerned about going out. Sales aren’t where they were last year, but they weren’t really too significantly down.”

Hassler said the boost from the loosening of limitations was lessened in Monroe County and nearby areas because of this region’s proximity to Missouri, where coronavirus restrictions have been more lax. 

“You still only gained about an extra 20 percent of business or so with everything opening back up, and that was due to us being close to the Missouri side,” said Hassler, who spoke with other business owners. “They opened up way before us, so they got the big boom from everybody wanting to dine in.” 

Still, revenue was trending in the right direction for almost two months until the metro east had three consecutive days of its positivity rate being over 8 percent, triggering mitigation measures under Illinois’s coronavirus resurgence mitigation plan. 

On Aug. 19, a new host of restrictions took effect including bars closing at 11 p.m., bar service being prohibited, social distancing being required between tables and reservations begin required. 

That had a small, but not insignificant, impact on Monroe County bars and restaurants. 

“It definitely dipped sales down about another 10 percent,” Hassler said. “It definitely scared citizens.” 

“It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t the end of the world either,” Schweizer added. “Like not having bar service, that’s manageable and that’s workable.” 

All business owners who spoke to the Republic-Times agreed the main problem was what Schweizer called the “sheer amount of confusion” over what activities are permitted, as it appeared consumers did not know what they could and could not do. 

Boccardi, Hassler and Schweizer reported seeing an increase in customers asking what hours were, if the business was open and more. 

With the state’s latest restrictions that closed indoor dining and drinking completely Sept. 2 after the region’s positivity rate remained over the limit, it appears this minimum two-week shutdown will have a harsher impact than previous mitigations. 

“The second one is going to be a little more difficult for us,” Boccardi said, noting he is expecting a 25-30 percent reduction in sales at least partly from having to cancel private party events. 

“It’s going to be a rough road until they open things back up,” Hassler agreed. “I feel like sales are going to dip down even further, and, at this point, I think bars and restaurants are putting money out just to stay afloat.”

The changing landscape alone has been hard for business owners to deal with. 

“It’s absolutely mentally and physically exhausting,” Hassler said, adding many owners are working twice as hard for less revenue. “We’re all up here trying to make it work, and it gets discouraging. You want to give up a lot, but you have to keep forging ahead to make it work and use this as a learning tool for the future.” 

Boccardi said managing employees has gotten exponentially more difficult with the shifting rules. 

“The most difficult part is trying to keep your staff,” he explained. “The one thing people tend to not understand is I’m not only supporting myself. I’ve got people who work for me who have bills to pay, rent to pay and food to put on their table.” 

“It’s a mess for everyone,” Schweizer summarized. “It’s a mess for employees, it’s a mess for employers and it’s certainly a mess for customers with not knowing what rules you have to follow.” 

Even if Monroe County and the rest of the metro east lowers its positivity rate so Illinois lifts restrictions, business owners look warily toward the rest of the year. 

“I’m kind of worried about the winter,” Schweizer said. “If these mitigation effects continue, and people don’t want to be sitting outside, carry-out and delivery alone is not sustainable.” 

“I think it’s going to still be a challenge because right now the weather is still nice enough we can do outdoor seating. If this continues on to October or November, and we’re still not putting people inside, it’s going to be extremely difficult for all of us,” Boccardi agreed. “I guess I’m just praying things get better, and we’re able to open up the dining rooms.” 

Hassler said he was more hopeful that business would pick back up or more government aid would become available, which Boccardi also mentioned, but if that does not happen Hassler expects even more trying times ahead. 

“Not knowing when the pandemic is going to be over and when they’re going to open us back up, the end of the year could be absolutely horrible or it could be the little boost you need to get you to 2021,” he said. “It’s hard to say, but if everything keeps going like it’s going, the start of 2021 is going to be an absolute monster for almost every single small business out there.” 

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