Georgia restaurant owners say it's not safe to reopen, despite OK from governor

Many top chefs throughout the state say reopening for dine-in service right now just isn't worth the risk.
/ Source: TODAY

As many states continue to operate under shelter-in-place orders amid the coronavirus pandemic, Georgia is getting ready to reopen hundreds of businesses, including gyms, salons and eateries, across the state.

Despite rising unemployment rates across multiple industries, not all of the state's restaurant and small business owners think this is a smart move.

This week, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia announced that restaurants in the state may reopen for dine-in service starting Monday, April 27, if they put certain precautions in place, such as employee temperature checks and staggered shifts for staff. On Friday, customers began flocking to spas, gyms and hair salons that were allowed to open under the new guidelines.

Many restaurateurs, however, immediately began speaking out against the governor's new orders.

"We're going to have to continue to trust our business community to do the right thing," said Gov. Kemp in a press conference earlier this week.

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Even though local restaurants are suffering financially from the closures and owners are eager make up for the staggering losses, many of the state's top chefs say that opening their doors right now is just not worth the risk.

"I think that the declaration from Governor Kemp is premature and impulsive," Steven Satterfield, executive chef and co-owner of Miller Union in Atlanta, told TODAY Food. "We have seen some decrease in deaths and confirmed cases, but not enough to warrant this move. We have not yet peaked or plateaued, and it's too soon to loosen restrictions, especially for gathering places."

Satterfield said the timeline restaurants were given by the state for reopening was unrealistic.

"Restaurants are really fragile right now," the chef said. "Giving them six days notice to open their doors without any warning is really not very helpful. And then releasing the guidelines for operating during a pandemic just three days before the potential opening date is an insult. That's the kind of information you need weeks before opening, so that you have time to plan, prepare and train."

He added that since many cooks, servers and other staffers have been furloughed or laid off in recent weeks, it will be even more difficult for restaurateurs to mobilize the help they need quickly. On top of that, restaurants need to acquire large quantities of new supplies, like masks and sanitizing agents, which are already in short supply throughout the country.

Other Georgia restaurateurs echoed Satterfield's sentiments.

"Cabbagetown is our neighborhood, we literally live here and work here," Emily Chan, co-owner of JenChan's Supper Club in Atlanta, said. Her restaurant has temporarily changed its name to JenChan's Delivery Supper Club during the pandemic.

"That is why it is so much more important that we keep our neighbors and loved ones safe," she continued. "Yes, it is painful to continue putting food in boxes instead of on plates, not to mention the added cost that take-out incurs: napkins, disposable forks and knives, bags, etcetera. But we will follow science on this one, it is too important to let politics dictate our actual survival on this planet."

Chan told TODAY that she lost an uncle to COVID-19, so she is taking this "very seriously."

Other chefs reiterated the fact that it takes time to pivot between business models and worry about how they will operate at a much lower capacity in the near future.

"We have completely reinvented ourselves over the past month with the to-go model and e-commerce store," Suzanne Vizethann, chef and owner of Buttermilk Kitchen, told TODAY Food. "It is going to take time, regardless of the ban, to open back up as normal. My number one priority is the safety and sanity of my employees and we have to factor in whether or not it is even worth opening the dining room if the capacity is cut in half."

"Our plan is to continue to work with fellow local business leaders and our staff to identify an appropriate time to open our dining room," Jonathan Fox, co-owner of Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, said. "Nothing would excite us more than to be able to get back to our way of doing what we love to do before this pandemic but providing guidelines three days prior to an official reopening date is nowhere near enough time to prepare. We understand we have the right to open or not, but right now we simply cannot risk the safety and well-being of our staff and community."

Many restaurateurs have also been thinking about how to reopen on a more realistic timeline.

"We have plans in place for a safe and efficient food delivery system, more spacious dining room seating, rigorous cleaning and disinfecting schedule, daily staff health evaluations and more," Atlanta chef and restaurateur Anne Quatrano said.

"We trust that our guests will also abide by the guidelines suggested by CDC and remain home if feeling ill and practice proper precautions and good judgement when interacting."

Other top restaurants in the state's most populous city announced their decision to stay shuttered on Instagram.

"Probably could guess there is no way in hell we are opening to the public Monday," Empire State South, one of "Top Chef" judge Hugh Acheson's restaurants, posted along with pictures showing how the eatery's operations have pivoted to focus on hunger relief efforts to help those most affected by the crisis.

Alex Brounstein, owner of Grindhouse Killer Burgers, posted a similar message to his community.

"In order to maintain a comfortable level of safety for our staff and customers, Grindhouse will not open its dining rooms on Monday, April 27th," Brounstein posted via his restaurant's Instagram. "Despite the announcement from Gov. Kemp to encourage reopening, we feel it is far too soon to allow on-site dining."

Even President Donald Trump, who has previously expressed support for those protesting coronavirus-related shutdowns, said he believes it's "too soon" for Georgia to be reopening so many business.

"I told the governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities," the president said Wednesday. "But at the same time, he must do what he thinks is right. I want him to do what he thinks is right. But I disagree with him on what he's doing."

The new guidelines restaurants must follow were released late Thursday night, while restaurants are being permitted to resume service on Monday. The list includes nearly 40 measures eateries must meet to resume “minimum basic operations.” Among the most notable include:

  • Only 10 patrons per every 500 square feet of floorspace are allowed in dining rooms, waiting areas or bar areas.
  • Salad bars and self-service buffets have been banned.
  • Self-service beverage, utensil and condiment stations are prohibited.
  • Tables and any other items or areas often touched by guests must be thoroughly sanitized.
  • Reservations are limited to six guests per table.
  • Establishments must post signage at their entrances stating that no one exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms or who has a fever over 100.4 degrees will be allowed inside.
  • Customers must use contactless pay options when possible.
  • Staff must discourage patrons from congregating in waiting areas.

While dozens of popular restaurants are choosing to stay closed, several eateries do plan to reopen, including Waffle House. So, while Georgians will be able to get an All-Star Special come Monday, for many of the state's other eateries, customers will have to wait until the chefs and owners decide it is safe on their terms.

"People that work in the restaurant industry are super resilient," chef Bruce Logue, whose restaurant BoccaLupo in Atlanta will not be reopening Monday, told TODAY. "I think as long as owners and operators stay focused on the safety of everyone involved first and foremost, we will figure out how to do this. Most of us are used to operating on thin margins and working hard to overcome them."