Fire to Re-Hire: Restaurant & Bar Owners Respond to COVID-19 Restrictions

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The Town of Beaufort blocked off parking spots in front of many downtown restaurants to accommodate takeout service. Clawson's 1905 Restaurant & Pub is one of dozens of local restaurants in the county that had to close dining rooms due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The COVID-19 outbreak is rocking the economy and affecting every sector of industry in some way or another. While businesses in the healthcare and grocery sectors are being pushed to their limits, those in the hospitality industry are restricting operations or temporarily closing their doors.

Around 10:30 am March 17 Gov. Roy Cooper announced he would sign Executive Order 118 requiring all bars to close and all restaurants to cease sit-down service by 5 pm that evening. Many business owners expected some restrictions to be handed down at some point, but the order still sent a shock through the system.

As of today, Friday, March 20, restaurants may offer delivery service and take to-go orders, but customers must take their food elsewhere to eat – even if the restaurant has outdoor seating. Bars must remain closed entirely.

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Compassionate Layoffs

COVID-19 and the unwelcome, if necessary, consequences of social distancing have negatively affected businesses across the state, but they’ve hit Carteret County bars, restaurants and hotels at a critical time.

March is the beginning of the so-called “shoulder season” – a time when tourism begins to pick up and much-needed cash starts flowing into local establishments. Instead of hiring summer staff, business owners are laying people off.

“I had to lay off two staffs,” said Liz Kopf, owner of Turner Street Market and Backstreet Pub, both in Beaufort. “I laid off about 7 people at the market and 7 people at Backstreet.”

Kopf, who plans to continue operating a limited take-out service at the market, has been a Beaufort business owner for nearly 20 years and said she has never been in a similar position.

“I’ve been through 9/11, the crash of 2008, hurricanes – I’ve never had to lay anybody off before. It was a new experience for me, but it was absolutely necessary.”

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It was also the most compassionate choice Kopf and other business owners could make, she said. Along with his order to close or reduce hospitality services, Gov. Cooper stripped away hurdles for unemployment filing.

Laid-off workers can immediately file for benefits and do not have to be actively looking for other work in order to receive them. On the business side, employers will not be held responsible for benefits paid out.

Kopf is only one of many restaurant and bar owners who had to lay off workers this week. Charles Park, owner of Beaufort Grocery Co., told most of his staff to file for unemployment, though his four managers and some service staff will continue to operate the restaurant’s to-go service.

“I told all of them except the managers, ya’ll need to decide right now if you’re going to stay,” Park said. “But in no way – if they don’t want to work and are afraid of it – I’m not going to hold it against them, and they can retain their position.”

Both Kopf and Park had already begun making changes due to the virus outbreak before Tuesday’s announcement. Kopf had made the decision to close her businesses the day before, and Park had taken measures to allow for social distancing.

Heather Brushwood, owner of The Fish Hook Grill on Harkers Island, also started making changes before the order came down. “On Monday night I had decided to close the dining room down. I figured it was coming anyway,” she said.

“I’ve got about five workers that weren’t comfortable coming in waiting tables, I have health issues myself, and there’s always that chance. We’ve had different people from other areas coming down here, from places we know the virus has shown up in.”

Now that the order is in place, Brushwood told most of her staff to go ahead and file for unemployment, though some will remain to continue Fish Hook’s take out and new delivery service.

“They have to be able to put food on their own tables,” she said. “I’ve let them know their jobs are secure.”

The governor’s order was the right thing to do, despite the economic fallout Brushwood said.

“Granted, it’s going to hurt restaurants. It’s hurting a lot of people. But in the end, if this is what will get it under control, I think we have to do whatever we possibly can within our means to get it under control.”

Not Everyone’s (To-Go) Cup of Tea

Despite the outbreak, not everyone is on board with the Governor’s order. Minutes after Cooper signed the order, Lt. Gov Dan Forest spoke out against the measure, releasing a statement that questioned the morality and legality of the new restrictions.

“His mandate will devastate our economy, shutter many small businesses, and leave many people unemployed, especially in the rural areas of our state where food supply is already critical,” Forest stated in the release.

“The Governor held his press conference and made the announcement even after a majority of the Council of State voted not to concur with the Governor. Thus, he does not have the authority to issue this part of his executive order.”

But Forest, who is running for Governor this year, said he won’t be taking further action. “I do not believe that suing the Governor during a time of crisis is in the best interest of the state,” he he told the Beacon Friday morning. 

Though his restaurant complied with the order immediately, Park, owner of Beaufort Grocery, said he would have preferred the Governor leave the decision to restrict or cease service to individual businesses.

“Some people had already voluntarily closed,” he said, citing the closures of a few Beaufort businesses prior to Tuesday and the state of Georgia’s lassiez faire approach to the outbreak.

“To keep some people from getting upset, you gotta let some people make decisions for themselves. We were already practicing common sense distancing.”

An Economy in Question

Hospitality services employ around 20 percent of Carteret County’s workforce, according to 2017 census data. That includes restaurants, bars, hotels, bed & breakfasts and the like.

Most of these businesses depend on tourism to keep their doors open – and their staff employed – all year. But tourists aren’t visiting right now, and may not for weeks to come.

The Carteret Board of Commissioners declared a state of emergency Thursday, March 19, that discourages tourists from coming to the county. There is no outright ban on tourism, however.

Jim Browder, Director of the county’s Tourism Development Agency said there is no way to predict how much COVID-19 will affect tourism this year.

“Unfortunately, because this is such an unprecedented event, we really have no comparison points to determine how it has affected, or may affect tourism,” he said.

“We are placing priority on the health, safety and welfare of our residents and current visitors. We are not actively promoting visitation to our area.”

Carteret County Chamber of Commerce Director Tom Kies said he is already seeing the damage COVID-19 is doing to the local economy.

“Carteret County is an economy driven by the tourism industry” he said. “I’d be lying if I tried to minimize the effect that the coronavirus is having on our economy.”

Kies said his organization is promoting open establishments, encouraging locals to purchase take-out and gift certificates, and to post positive reviews for Carteret businesses.

One local nonprofit is attacking the problem with a fundraiser. Beaufort Wine & Food, which hosts the Beaufort Wine & Food Weekend each April, started a campaign Thursday to raise money for unemployed hospitality workers in the county. The organization is matching donations up to $10,000 and has raised more than $5,000 so far.

Despite these efforts though, the reality is that some of these businesses may not be able to re-open their doors.

Charles Park, who has owned and operated Beaufort Grocery since 1992 and teaches business practices to future restaurateurs at Carteret Community College, said some bars and restaurants may go out of business due to coronavirus.

Turner Street Market owner Liz Kopf agreed, and said the industry is particularly prone to economic uncertainty.

“Restaurants in particular run on very slim margins,” she said. “I think it’s possible that we could see some [businesses closing].

But both they and Fish Hook owner Heather Brushwood are keeping their heads up.

“We’re going to roll with it for as long as we can, and say a few extra prayers,” Brushwood said.

Park was even more optimistic. “I think once it’s gone, the economy is just going to start booming,” he said. “People aren’t making money, but they aren’t spending money either.”

And Kopf summed up the food and beverage industry in a nutshell. “I think restaurant folks are doing what they can with their business models. We’re scrappy. We’re scrappy people.”


Transparency Note: The editor is a shareholder of Clawson’s 1905 Restaurant & Pub, featured in the photo above. Clawson’s and its sister restaurant, Aqua, are also temporarily laying off the majority of their staff. Clawson’s is offering take-out service, but Aqua remains closed.