Winter is coming, and Laura Galgano, co-owner of the Blue Moon Diner, has concerns.
Just a few months after reopening from a two-year closure due to a remodel and development around the restaurant, the Blue Moon Diner closed again because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Galgano and her husband were the only two employees from May until late September, and now they are slowly bringing staff back.
But with colder months on the horizon, she and other Charlottesville and Albemarle County restaurateurs are nervous about what that could mean for the long-term viability of their businesses.
“You want to be able to give someone a good experience dining out — make them feel safe, make them enjoy it — but how can you really provide that and make enough money to stay in business with limited spacings, limited seating availability and limited services that you can provide safely?,” Galgano said.
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Many local restaurant owners have been successful in receiving CARES Act money, PPP loans and other funding and loans to help them stay afloat, but those funds are dwindling. Late last month, Gov. Ralph Northam increased funding and expanded eligibility requirements for the state’s Rebuild VA program.
“Without those, there’s no way that you are staying afloat without sinking your own money into it,” said Angela Spathos, co-owner of the Aberdeen Barn. “We’re hoping and praying and answering all of the National Restaurant Association’s requests for us to hit up our senators. We’re definitely hoping that something else will come out in January from the federal government for sure, especially if we either have to go back a step or people are going to be scared to come out.”
Local COVID case numbers have come down from a September high, and while percent positivity numbers have decreased, new cases are still occurring daily in the area.
Public health officials have attributed the very low local percent positivity rate — 1.8% was the seven-day positivity rate on Friday — to the amount of testing happening at the University of Virginia.
“UVa is doing a lot of pooled testing, some saliva testing, they’ve done a number of point prevalence service of dorms on Grounds, and so we get very large numbers of tests, but a relatively small number of positive cases, resulting in a very low positivity rate,” Dr. Denise Bonds, director of the Thomas Jefferson Health District, told Charlottesville’s City Council last week.
THJD spokeswoman Kathryn Goodman said the health district has seen an increase in community spread, and many of the recent cases have been related to social gatherings.
“It’s sometimes hard, because we might have an individual who tested positive that went to a restaurant and sometimes you can’t always determine how someone got COVID, but we haven’t had any large outbreaks linked to restaurants,” she said.
On the Downtown Mall, Will Richey, who runs Whiskey Jar, Revolutionary Soup and The Bebedero, said the community has been coming out and supporting restaurants, but he’s fearful about the next few months.
“I’m very scared of winter,” he said. “I’m very worried.”
Richey said he’s repeatedly hearing from customers that they are happy to eat on the patios, but they will not eat inside. His restaurants are adhering to six-foot spacing between tables, he said, which puts them at less than 50% capacity.
“And then, of course, there’s the worry on top of that — what’s COVID going to do this winter when people are inside more, are we gonna see a spike?” he said. “We have that fear and anxiety hanging over us. Is it even responsible to do indoor seating in the dead of winter?”
Maurice Kelly, the franchise owner of Matchbox in the Shops at Stonefield, had just opened the restaurant about a year ago. He said that typically, after a year, an owner is able to look at operational data and make projections for the coming year, but the pandemic has changed that.
“With COVID, every single day is a new day,” he said. “We really don’t have a grasp on what’s to come tomorrow, so it’s a real challenge for us.”
Some restaurants are having issues finding people to hire. Kelly said he has hired people who had lost jobs or couldn’t get hired in other industries.
“I have engineers. I have law students in their third years. I have nurses,” he said.
Richey said he and other owners thought that once the elevated unemployment ended, people would be “beating down our doors” for jobs.
“That has not been the case,” he said. “I don’t know what this scenario is, but it’s a little scary. Of course, now we’re not going to need them going into winter, but we’re just hoping that when we get out of this, when we come back into the spring, that people will be looking for jobs. We have not been able to find enough staff to fill all of our spaces and we’ve just been doing the best we can. That’s for my whole restaurant group, and that’s what I understand from my colleagues, as well.”
Both Charlottesville and Albemarle County have allocated CARES Act funding for local businesses, and both localities gave preference to industries heavily affected by the pandemic, such as hospitality, restaurants and food services.
Albemarle is also in the process of distributing grant funds to businesses that have expanded outdoors. Charlottesville is partially waiving and reducing fees for restaurants to rent outdoor dining space on the Downtown Mall.
Richey said he’s been trying to work closely with the city, and has encouraged officials to make fuller use of the Downtown Mall and its open-air space.
“That doesn’t solve the whole city’s problems, of course, but for the downtown people, I keep trying to bring up the idea of a holiday market sort of scenario where people can be outside more, be on the mall, make the whole downtown an open-air beverage area so people can walk around with a beer or a hot mulled wine during the winter months, and have vendors outside and just more going on outside,” he said.
Jason Ness, with the city’s Office of Economic Development, said the office has been talking with restaurant owners about possible ways to help.
“The idea of an open beverage area for a holiday market on the mall is problematic for several reasons, the main one being this concept would require a special event permit, something the city is not currently issuing,” he said in an email last week.
The city is exploring other options to “support the restaurants’ creativity,” Ness said, and “hopefully will have more news about that next week,” as there are still “unfinished details and approvals” and that “it would be premature” to give more information.
The city also was exploring the possibility of subsidizing a portion of the cost of tent rentals for local businesses, but Ness said no commitments have been made at this point.
Galgano said her other major concern is battling the complacency. She said they’ve done a good job of having new practices in place to sanitize everything and make sure everybody’s wearing face masks, among other things.
“Just as this stretches on, those behaviors need to be ingrained in all of us and just become second nature,” she said. “That’s a concern I have — of just falling into that complacency and having something like that make someone sick.”