Georgia restaurant owners have found themselves in a difficult position: reopen their businesses, and put the health of their employees and customers at risk, or stay closed and continue to lose revenue. When Georgia Governor Brian Kemp announced on Monday, April 20, that restaurants could reopen their dining rooms the following Monday, restaurant owners had to quickly decide their next steps. While some Atlanta area restaurants have decided to reopen, an overwhelming number have announced that they think it’s too soon.
For restaurants choosing to reopen, there are 39 state requirements that they must follow. They include a maximum of 10 patrons per 500 square feet, limiting party sizes to no more than six people, screening employees who appear to be sick, and separating customers who are still waiting to be seated.
Krystle Rodriguez, owner of Hodgepodge Coffeehouse in Ormewood Park and Reynoldstown, was surprised to hear Kemp’s announcement. Expecting people to keep six feet apart would be nearly impossible, she says, and some research shows that six feet isn’t far enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Our biggest priority has always been the safety and health of our customers and team members,” says Rodriguez, who hosted a Zoom meeting with her team right after Kemp made his announcement. “The vast majority of the staff echoed not opening up our seating area. Although we wear masks and gloves, a lot of customers haven’t been wearing masks.” So she issued a statement on Instagram letting guests know that the shop won’t be opening for dine-in service and that protective face masks will now be required for all takeout customers.
Ford Fry was also quick to let people know that he wouldn’t be reopening the dining rooms of Rocket Farm Restaurants, which has 12 restaurants (including Superica, King + Duke, and Marcel) and more than 1,000 employees in Atlanta. While he’s personally excited to reopen soon, he also realized that right now isn’t the time. “I think our staff is not quite ready, I think the public is not quite ready.” Fry says. “We don’t really have the numbers quite yet that we really want to see. So it just wasn’t feeling right to me.”
When it comes to deciding whether or not to reopen, Fred Castellucci of Castellucci Hospitality Group says that business owners need to play the role of a public health official. “We’re going to make the right decision based on the facts and information and the data we have,” he says. While he appreciates that he gets a choice as a business owner, he will not reopen CHG’s seven dining rooms yet. When he shared the news with his staff, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “Thousands of emails, texts, calls. It was an outpouring of love and support beyond anything we’ve ever done,” he says.
Among the handful of Atlanta-area restaurants planning to reopen on Monday are Escobar Restaurant and Tapas Lounge in Castleberry Hill and Johnnie MacCracken’s Celtic Pub in Marietta (Escobar has since reversed their decision to reopen). When asked how she views restaurants choosing to reopen, Rodriguez says, “I feel bad. I know for a lot of people, they’re looking at this like a necessary evil. If they could stay closed they probably would for the health and safety for everyone around them.” But, she points out, many landlords aren’t offering forgiveness or they’re giving the businesses forbearance (a postponement) on the rent which means they’ll have a balloon payment due.
In the meantime, owners like Castellucci and Rodriguez plan to keep doing their best with the models they have in place. Castellucci says that opening the restaurants for takeout seven days a week for lunch and dinner has allowed them to “claw” their way back. Rodriguez has created a market at the coffee shop called Hodgepodge Pantry where she sells yeast, toilet paper, eggs, and frozen goods.
“When this all started, we felt really lost,” Rodriguez says. “You feel really powerless against something like this, and of all of those plans you’ve made falls by the wayside. While we can’t really save the world right now, we can make sure that our neighborhood and community has what it needs to survive through this.”
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