05/05/2020

Valley restaurant owners split on opening up May 8

President Trump’s visit to Arizona came less than 24 hours after Governor Ducey announced restaurants and salons can re-open over the course of the next week.

Many restaurant owners, though, say they are lacking clear guidance and have a lot of unanswered questions. Furthermore, they say the guidelines for re-opening are more like suggestions, which will lead to inconsistency across the industry.

At the Breadfruit and Rum Bar, the glasses are dry, the silverware is collecting dust, and the seats are empty.

“I really want to re-open. This is my livelihood,” said Chef Danielle Leoni.

But Chef Leoni is not going to welcome customers back in on May 11th.

“In order for us to reopen, we are going to have to know we are safe,” said Leoni. “And without proper mandates, clear definitive guidelines, I’m afraid that our community is going to suffer greatly.”

The small business owner is also worried about being able to stay afloat while following the mandated six-feet distancing.

“A restaurant has very slim margins. We cannot afford to have less than one-third of our business,” she said. 

Before he even announced a re-opening date, Governor Ducey acknowledged that operating at limited capacity will not help small businesses.

“Anybody that’s ever run a restaurant knows that 25% is just the surest way to continually lose a lot more money,” said Governor Ducey at the news conference on April 29th.

The “guidance” laid out by the governor’s office fits on a single page. The guidelines read more like suggestions, as opposed to clear mandates.

“Everybody’s going to have their own take on what they believe is best. There is going to be no consistency across the Valley,” said Leoni, who just weeks earlier was praising Ducey for putting a halt on landlord evictions of small businesses.

“There’s not a lot of rules and regulations. It’s kind of like opening an IKEA box. You have a wrench and 500 screws and you’re supposed to put a table together,” said Jon Buford, co-founder and owner of AZ Wilderness. “So we’re looking for guidance.”

Buford said he is grateful the governor made the tough decision to allow restaurants to serve customers inside again.

“There’s not a lot of money opening in the COVID area. It might hurt more than it helps at first, but you’ve got to do it at one point,” said Buford, who estimated his capacity will be around 50% with social distancing.

Buford says his breweries and restaurants, in Gilbert and downtown Phoenix, will start seating customers again Tuesday.

“We are itching to get back to business. So we have this conundrum, but we’ve decided to take Monday as a kind of test run [with family and friends],” said Buford.”We will operate at a fraction of the percentage, and we will stick to six [feet apart] and we will be wearing masks.”

Both Buford and Leoni say they are concerned about a possible second coronavirus wave in Arizona, as well as the daily safety of their employees and customers.

“Just because we re-open, does not mean we are in the clear or out of the woods. We are still in that,” said Buford.

Leoni says she is keeping her doors shuttered indefinitely, and will open up when the governor dines at a restaurant with his family and without a mask.

“I’m waiting for Governor Ducey to make that reservation,” she said.

Another big concern of owners is their employees, and what will happen if someone says they do not feel safe returning to work. There are questions about whether a server with a pre-existing condition or a line chef who lives with their elderly parents could be denied unemployment benefits for declining to return to work immediately.

Then there is liability. Many restaurateurs worry about possible lawsuits if a customer contracts COVID-19 and tries to blame it on their restaurant. Governor Ducey said he will be working with the state legislature to determine a plan around liability protections.

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