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Southern Hospitality

As South Carolina restaurants reopen, workers are left in a tough spot

  • Updated
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The patio at Jake’s on May 5.

The doors are beginning to crack. Before long, it appears they’ll be wide open.

On May 4, Gov. Henry McMaster allowed South Carolina restaurants and bars, closed for dine-in due to COVID-19 since March 17, to reopen for outdoor seating under certain conditions that allow for social distancing and increased protections against infection. On May 8, McMaster eased restrictions even more, allowing for indoor dining with a suggested capacity of 50 percent, but no formal restrictions, starting May 11.

In the first week, several eateries took advantage of the outdoor capabilities, and customers came in droves. But not all are reopening, with some citing health concerns for their staff and customers.

Per the experience of a Free Times photographer, who visited several restaurants with on-premise service last week, the scenes varied, with some businesses amassing lines and bar crowds that had little regard for social distancing, while others managed moderate turnout while spacing customers quite well.

This reflects a broader dilemma for public officials — weighing the economic health of the city, state and nation against the physical health of the public. The two are intertwined, and public officials have stressed that. McMaster said as much in his May 1 announcement, explaining that public health and economic health go hand-in-hand.

“The challenge there is the science tells us what we need to do in order to slow or stop the transmission of the virus, but those recommendations can be so extreme that the economic implications become a serious problem,” Jamie Vernon, executive director of North Carolina’s Sigma Xi science and engineering research society, explains to Free Times. “I think that the states are choosing to focus on economic implications of the stay at home policies. ... They’re having to make some tradeoffs.

“The decision to open up, at the same time as setting aside some of the federal guidelines, is pretty much going to guarantee there will be additional cases.”

As doors reopen, workers return and interact with the public, and the public interacts with each other, again. It’s a situation that indisputably creates a higher chance of coronavirus continuing to spread. For workers, it creates a crushing dilemma between returning to work or prioritizing their health — and that of the public at large.

For some, the choice may be out of their hands.

South Carolina’s Department of Employment and Workforce says that those who are offered their jobs back but decline will be removed from unemployment. The department didn’t respond to requests for comment from Free Times on whether this would apply to people who are still anxious over COVID-19 concerns and would rather wait to begin working again. Several restaurant owners confirmed receiving emails saying they should report to the department if an employee declines to return to work.

Which saddles restaurant owners with a difficult decision, and leaves hospitality workers in a precarious position.

“[Workers] have to decide if their employment is more important than the risk they’re facing for their health,” Vernon explains.

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Outdoor diners at Blue Marlin on May 6.

Lingering Anxiety

David Adedokun considers the sniffles and coughs he gets sitting in his backyard. It’s allergy season, the bartender at Cottontown’s The War Mouth reasons.

Yet Adedokun still worries. What if it isn’t just allergies? What if he’s a carrier of the coronavirus? As someone who would potentially serve 50 to 60 guests in a night if the restaurant were to reopen with reduced capacity, he worries about playing a role in spreading the disease.

In the absence of mass testing, he worries that he won’t be able to accomplish one of his favorite parts of the job — bringing a convivial atmosphere. For him, the bar is a place where people of different backgrounds — political, social, economic — gather and find a way to bond.

“Missing that is something I feel very intensely and missing a community where any of that can happen freely,” Adedokun explains. “That freedom can only truly be had if the shadow and specter of coronavirus is really removed, if we try to reopen without it fully removed it’s going to cast its shadow, it’s going to affect that conviviality in some way.”

“We know as a matter of fact we don’t have that.”

For those who are yet to open or return to work, they say that it’s out of caution.

Spotted Salamander Cafe and Catering owner and chef Jessica Shillato has mostly shut down her restaurant and hasn’t resumed service. Last week, she held a fried chicken pop-up at her downtown-adjacent spot, which she explains allowed her to control costs, as well as customer interactions with her workers.

Yet she says that reassembling her kitchen staff, having them work alongside each other once more, gave her pause.

“[It] was the first day we all worked together since this started. They were nervous,” Shillato says. “It was weird at first. We eased into it pretty quickly.”

A self-described “germaphobe,” she’s making her employees sanitize most everything in the kitchen and wear protective gear like gloves and masks. Shillato hasn’t reopened yet because she wanted to be cautious and says it’s expensive to open and close a restaurant.

“I really care about the safety of our employees ... so I’m going to be a little more cautious. Also I’m nervous about people. Some people, they just don’t care about other people’s safety and wellness,” she offers.

Despite health concerns, some of those who have reopened say they’re excited to be back at work, and that they trust in their sanitary processes and the state’s guidelines for operating. Count Saluda’s head chef Josh Rogerson among them

“I’m ecstatic,” he elaborates. “It’s been really great having actual diners in the building. ... The biggest thing for me is being able to bring my staff back and making money and earning again.”

He says they gave kitchen staff the option to return depending on their comfort, and, to his surprise, they all came back.

The restaurant had been doing curbside pickup, but Rogerson says he isn’t worried about returning to something closer to regular business. He works in the kitchen, with little guest interaction, and the restaurant has invested in more sanitation equipment.

“I can’t reiterate enough about how happy I am to be reopen again. I think we all know this is not over by any means. But being able to come back to some sense of normalcy feels really good again,” Rogerson details. “I feel everyone, not just us, can be responsible about it. … Just sticking that balance between wanting to be open and wanting to do stuff. It’s just an interesting tightrope to walk.”

Adedokun understands Rogerson’s sentiment and, despite his reservations, he says if The War Mouth had reopened last week, he would’ve gone to work.

“I’m definitely of two minds about it,” he says. “I don’t think they’re entirely wrong to be excited to come back to work, I just think that they shouldn’t have to be doing it under this context. They shouldn’t have to be weighing the continuation of their livelihood against a health concern in an area like ours that hasn’t been hit as hard as other places.”

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Outdoor revelers at Publico on May 5.

‘Everyone Is So Concerned’

McMaster’s May 4 return to outdoor dining fell in line with a South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association reopening proposal given during accelerateSC meetings, the team of state and local government officials and business leaders that the governor formed to determine the best way to reopen South Carolina’s economy. McMaster’s May 11 easement of restrictions also lined up with the proposal’s timeline, as it details that indoor dining should resume by May 18, adding that some restaurants that are particularly capable of doing so safely could get back to serving customers indoors by May 11. It further suggested easing social distancing regulations depending on the public health at a later, untargeted date.

It mirrors what other states, particularly in the South, have decided to do. Georgia was the first to begin to reopen closed businesses, and others, such as Texas and Alaska, have followed suit.

While it remains to be seen how conditions progress and if McMaster will continue to follow the restaurant reopening proposal, some owners reported strong results from their initial returns, and a positive response from their staff, as well.

Five Points’ Publico received attention when it decided to re-close on May 5. Some local media reports indicated the closure came after May 4 and May 5 crowds were too large for the business to feel comfortable exposing its employees.

But co-owner Michael Duganier claims that isn’t the case, and that the restaurant and bar planned all along to reopen for two days and then re-close for work needed on the building. He says that his workers, mostly college students, enjoyed their shifts despite the crowds and attention.

“We definitely made it clear that who wants to come back [should come] and those were the employees that came,” Publico co-owner Michael Duganier tells Free Times. “I know that after we closed, the employees were in good spirits afterwards.”

Fellow Five Points bar Jake’s also re-opened last week and received some flak for the crowds that lined up outside the bar, appearing in photos taken by local media outlets, including those gathered by Free Times, to not adhere to the recommended six feet of social distance — which, at that time, was required for customers inside the restaurant. Owner Jon Sears says he can only control what happens on his property and says the sidewalk is publicly owned. He also points to X marks he placed to encourage social distancing for the line.

He says that it’s been two months since the business has been able to make money and that his staff was ready to work, and that he felt comfortable reopening following the governor’s guidelines. He gave his employees the option to wear masks and made it mandatory to wear gloves. He says some wore both, while others only wore gloves — when Free Times visited to take photos on May 5, all employees wore gloves, but scant few donned masks.

“I think it went well,” Sears posits. “It was a good crowd.”

Others are not so willing to move forward with reopening. Businesses like Motor Supply Co. Bistro, smallSUGAR, The War Mouth, Lula Drake Wine Parlour, Bourbon, Black Rooster and Craft and Draft all have elected to stay closed.

“There’s a lot of hesitation in the air in how this is all going to go down,” posits Katelyn Shire, manager of Craft and Draft’s Devine Street location.

Co-owner Andrew Johnson acknowledges that as things open back up there will be more health risks, but he, Shire and co-owner Kellan Monroe are planning to reopen. Johnson says they’ve emphasized customer and employee safety in their approach.

Specifically, they’re doing things like building out a reservation system to avoid large crowds, keeping off-premise and on-premise customers entirely separate and making protective gear available for staff.

Shire says workers are mostly ready to return and comfortable with the measures being taken.

“For the most part our employees are really excited to come back. I think they trust us to make sure it is safe,” she offers.

Some owners are joining a concerted effort to better prepare the industry, its workers and customers.

Since last week, Lula Drake owner Tim Gardner has been assembling a group called Safe Dining SC, which was formed in response to concerns with reopening and the perceived need for a shared knowledge base among restaurant owners. As of May 11, he says 25 restaurants had agreed to be a part of it.

He describes the group as a two-prong effort, coupling its efforts to disseminate information about restaurants and coronavirus with advocacy at the state level in hopes of finding guidance on how to proceed in the current circumstances.

“It’s not coming down from the federal government, the state has these guidelines, but I walk down the street and nobody is practicing them,” he explains. “As restaurateurs, everyone is so concerned about their customers and staff.”

Gardner doesn’t put any blame on restaurateurs that are choosing to reopen, saying each business’ situation is unique and may call for different approaches. He says his employees, though, are uncertain about the prospect of returning to work right now.

“My experience, with my employees, is that they are very concerned that they’re safe and that our customers are safe,” he shares. “There’s so much confusion, we get these guidelines that ‘Here are the criteria we have to meet to open and move forward.’ It turns out we haven’t met any of them.”

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Outdoor dining at Saluda’s on May 5.

‘Is It Worth It?’

Debate about whether reopening restaurants is safe will undoubtedly continue, but one point remains clear: South Carolina is doing so against recommendations for what would best serve the public health.

Per federal guidelines, one of the key tenets to reopening an economy is to have 14 consecutive days of declining positive coronavirus tests. That has yet to happen. In April, McMaster reasoned in a press conference that those “were just guidelines” and that he felt the state could move forward with reopening without endangering lives.

Reporting done by The Post and Courier‘s Avery Wilks and Thad Moore showed the state needs more contact tracers, workers trained to identify infected individuals and locate those who could have been exposed, and testing to contain the outbreak as the economy reopened. The two reported that, by one model, the state will require about 1,500 contact tracers to effectively contain flare ups. The state currently has about 230 and hopes to hire about 1,000 more.

Testing is a large part of federal guidelines and it has long been on the mind of some owners in Columbia. In April, Porter Barron, co-owner of The War Mouth, told Free Times that more testing was needed for him to feel comfortable with reopening. Gardner echoes that, as well.

But things could be improving.

The state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control announced on May 6 that it had plans to test more than 200,000 people in the next two months. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin also announced plans last week to initiate virus testing for workers that are returning to work.

Asked at McMaster’s May 8 press conference what kind of data South Carolina was seeing to green light further scaling back of restaurant restrictions, state epidemiologist Linda Bell pointed to the flattening of the state’s rate of infection and increases in testing.

“We’ve seen a flattening of the curve for a relatively short period of time and we’re hopeful that flattening remains [as we increase testing],” she elaborated.

Sigma Xi’s Vernon says that if health guidelines are being followed and protective is gear provided, then public-facing employees should feel confident in returning to work. He cites things like occupancy restrictions and one-way aisles in grocery stores as measures that can still help.

Still, he worries that it can be difficult to follow these guidelines due to customer behavior, and some restaurant owners acknowledge this.

Sears, Jake’s co-owner, says it’s difficult to control human behavior inside a hospitality environment, let alone on the sidewalks outside. He suggests that it’s difficult to ask a group to break up if they’re talking too close together, though he emphasizes that he and his staff tried.

“At any point if there was something that didn’t look safe we’d politely ask them to move apart,” Sears says. “At the same time, again, there has to be personal responsibility here.”

“I think we opened in an extremely responsible fashion,” he adds. “If I had determined that I couldn’t open in a safe manner, I wouldn’t.”

Adedokun, the War Mouth bartender, suggests that the onus should be on government leaders, not restaurants and their workers, to figure out how to best balance the weighty concerns associated with reopening.

“I feel like it’s wrong and irresponsible [to keep] the public safe on the back of the business owners and the workers, which is what it’s being done, instead of the buck stopping at the top of the totem pole,” he opines.

Vernon gives a similar appraisal.

“We should be following the federal guidelines and by choosing not to do that, those leaders are accepting that level of risk,” he says. “They need to look deep inside themselves and ask, ‘Is it worth it?’”

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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