St. Louis County restaurants react to return of indoor shutdowns

Beginning Tuesday, Nov. 17, new operating restrictions in St. Louis County will shut down indoor dining at St. Louis restaurants and bars and limit outdoor dining from 50% to 25% capacity. Bars and restaurants have struggled throughout the pandemic, and this news comes as many were preparing for a difficult holiday season and winter. The restrictions will limit business to outdoor dining and takeout service. They will be reevaluated in four weeks based on the coronavirus numbers in St. Louis County. 

Restaurants in a variety of situations are finding the news hard to handle. Russell Ping, chef-owner of Russell's on Macklind, Lola Jean's and Russell's Fenton, was prepared to announce an indoor expansion at his Fenton location on Nov. 15.

“And that expansion was not, 'Oh, we're doing so great, let's expand,'” said Ping. “It was a creative solution to a problem of trying to serve more people, so my immediate reaction was that this is a major blow.” Ping was recently forced to close the Chesterfield location of Russell's due to the financial effects of the pandemic. 

Maria Giamportone, owner of Asador del Sur in Maplewood, which opened in August, was similarly rocked by the news. “Of course, I felt in total shock, since we only just opened. On the 19th was going to be our third month.”

Regardless of their unique situation, restaurant owners are left trying to make sense of the decision. “I don't understand how it makes sense when 20 minutes away in St. Charles restaurants are open with no restrictions,” Giamportone said. “It doesn't take into account the small businesses and what they're going through.” 

Ping echoed Giamportone's concerns about the St. Louis County restrictions tightening while surrounding areas continue with the restrictions laid out months ago. “It's so disjointed. Our Fenton location – and even our South City stores – are 5- to 20-minute drives from places without any restrictions.”

“Restaurant owners, as a group we're creative people; we think on our feet and find solutions to problems,” Ping said. “And it feels like there's no help out there for our businesses that are struggling to survive.”

Russell's will continue to take Thanksgiving pre-orders online, and Ping said they've been working on ideas that would allow them to sell some of their baked good in bulk. “We may have to move that process forward.”

“We've done carryout and takeout, so we'll continue and give it a try,” said Giamportone. “This week is a total unknown, we'll see how it goes.”

Although many restaurants are prepared to act in accordance with the new county guidelines, another group of family-owned restaurants – spearheaded by Bartolino’s South – is threatening to sue the county regarding the restrictions, citing the “arbitrary closure” as “irresponsible.” However, not all restaurants involved in the suit plan to defy the orders.

Frank Romano, managing partner at The Parkmoor Drive-In in Webster Groves, said the restrictions are concerning for his business. “We are planning to comply, but it does worry me that restaurants are being singled out,” he said. “I don’t think restaurants are the source of the spread of Covid-19; I think we are the scapegoats.”

The Parkmoor will offer carryout, as well as patio dining when weather permits.“We have a very strong curbside model and online ordering system that we execute very well, so we’ll be back to that model, but it’s very unfortunate,” he said. “We’re upset that we’ve spent money on a UV filtration system and have done so much to make it as safe as possible, but we don’t want to stay open and give the county and the health department a reason to shut us down; we don’t want to put a target on our back.”

While restrictions are on the horizon in St. Louis County, the city of St. Louis is offering small business some relief. The second round of the Small Business Grant Fund opens Monday, Nov. 16, which allows small businesses within the city limits to apply for a $5,000 grant from funds available through the Cares Act. Ping, who has two storefronts in the city limits, said, “We'll apply, and anything helps, but it's so far from solving any issue. With us and any restaurant right now, it's not about losing $1,000, $2,000, $3,000; we're talking about tens of thousands of dollars.” 

Restaurants continue to struggle for survival, and they need our help. An easy way to get involved is to reach out to your representatives and let them know you support the Restaurants Act and believe in the importance of protecting the restaurant industry.

Tags : News, Coronavirus