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As Beshear closes dining in, restaurant owners say 'This is the breaking point'

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 11/19/2020 Janet Patton, Lexington Herald-Leader

Gov. Andy Beshear’s new capacity restrictions on Kentucky restaurants and bars could not come at a worse time, Lexington restaurant owners said Wednesday.

Pushed to the brink by the coronavirus pandemic and the economic hardships it has brought, many were facing a tough holiday season already with just 50 percent capacity and waning outdoor seating.

Beginning Friday, they will be limited to takeout and outdoor seating until Dec. 13. Beshear announced Wednesday that all indoor restaurant seating will be closed.

“This is the breaking point,” said Heather Trump, co-owner of Shamrock Bar & Grille and The Cellar. Most were hoping to hang on to the beginning of college basketball season, when business was expected to pick up.

Limited just to carryout, she said, “you will see 30 percent of restaurants never come back.”

Aid package for restaurants

Restaurants can’t survive on takeout alone, she said. “If you want to shut us down, pay us to close,” Trump said.

Beshear plans to: He also announced a $40 million aid package for locally owned restaurants and bars.

The governor acknowledged Wednesday that the hospitality sector has been hit hard.

“This virus spreads where people congregate and take off their masks,” he said. “It’s really unfair but it’s not me being unfair, it’s the virus.”

Bars and restaurants will be eligible for up to $10,000 (or up to $20,000 if they have multiple locations) under certain circumstances. They must not be a publicly traded company and must not do 50 percent or more of their business with drive-thru.

“We really want to target the Mom and Pops,” said Latasha Buckner, Beshear’s chief of staff. She said the applications would be available online Nov. 30-Dec. 18 and more details will be available soon.

Restaurants and bars that do not comply with the rules and enforce the mask mandate and spacing limits could be deemed ineligible for the relief package.

The question is: Can the help get there fast enough?

“Who’s going to pay our rent?” asked Larry Dean, owner of Old Vine Bistro, which narrowly missed being evicted this month after missing a rent payment. Friends came through, he said, and he was able to cover it. That time.

But the additional capacity cutbacks are “devastating,” he said.

Dean said that his restaurant managed to stay afloat before “but that’s still not enough to keep operating. You got to have about 60 percent capacity to break even.”

He is most worried about his employees. “We’re going to try to get through but staff will be affected more than anything … they have families to support,” he said.

Dean said he is hoping that federal lawmakers can pass a straightforward stimulus bill that will bring relief.

“America’s in a crisis and now is not the time to complicate issues,” he said.

Pivoting from Christmas parties

Even before the governor’s warnings of new restrictions, Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short, was pivoting. Normally, she said, her fine-dining restaurant would have 20 or more holiday parties booked.

Heading into Thanksgiving, she said, they had nothing. So she’d already planned to offer special lunches for limited groups, with “mocktails,” in the hopes of enticing employers to scaled-down festivities.

Now even that is on hold. Long said Wednesday that she had already warned chef Mark Richardson not to order anything he didn’t need to have.

She said that she wishes restaurants and bars were not grouped together because they have completely different business models.

“If you’re a bar, your inventory can sit on shelves for a year. Ours is perishable. We have thousands of dollars of inventory sitting there,” Long said. Takeout will be at best a tenth of the regular restaurant business, she said.

“I get this, that we’ve got to take control of this, it’s frightening for everyone,” she said. “But I don’t don’t know how we’re going to get through.”

Stacy Roof, president and CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, said Wednesday that even before the restrictions were announced she had owners calling in tears.

“I’ve talked to some on the brink of closing and any change in business is going to push that to reality,” she said Wednesday morning.

Chef Jeremy Ashby, who owns Azur and Lexington Diner, said that restaurants feel “vilified” by limits that target them but not other high-traffic places like Kroger and Walmart.

“New restrictions will be hard for a lot of local small businesses to stomach,” he said Wednesday.

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