Gov. Mike DeWine has stopped short of issuing a statewide shutdown, opting instead for a business curfew between 10 p.m.-5 a.m. The decision was driven in part by concerns over the possible impact of a shutdown on the state’s struggling restaurant industry.
DeWine had said last week he was considering closing bars, restaurants, and gyms – as he did in the spring – to stop the spread of COVID-19. But he says the new, three-week curfew is an attempt to keep both people and industry healthy.
“We think that we can accomplish, frankly, a lot more by having this curfew than we could by closing one or two different business sectors," DeWine said at a press conference Tuesday. "So we’re going to try this for 21 days.”
DeWine decided against a closure right now after receiving emails from restauranteurs and workers throughout the state – many of whom argue a total shutdown could mean the end for them.
“We heard from a lot of people who work at bars and restaurants. I’ve always said, ‘We do listen.’ I’ve gotten some amazingly compelling emails in regards to this [and] some texts," DeWine said. “Every employee has a story. Every owner has a story as well. So what we’ve tried to do is balance things, but we have to take action.”
One of those owners is Rebekah Gillespie. This past May, she and her husband bought Tree City Coffee in Kent, which opened nine years ago.
“I've always wanted to have my own little place where people could come and have a drink," Gillespie says. "My passion is baking, but I've spent 20 years in the medical field. So it was just it was time for me to move on and try to make my dream come true.”
For the past several months, the cozy shop has been filled with socially distanced, masked students enjoying lattes and baked goods. But Gillespie worries that would change if restaurants have to close their dining rooms again, as they did from March until just before Memorial Day.
“I'm nervous, as I think any business owner would be right now, to have to go through that again,” Gillespie said.
Tree City still has a drive-thru window, but she does not think that will make up for the loss of in-person guests.
“I'm hoping. I'm gonna try my best to, you know, through social media to try to have people use it," she says. "Is it sustainable long-term? I don't have the answer for that. I don't know. It would require making me making decisions that I don't want to face right now.”
Many other restaurants face those same difficult choices, according to Homa Moheimani of the Ohio Restaurant Association.
“Nearly 60% believe that at current capacity – right now, without any further restrictions or anticipated restrictions or anything like that – 58% are thinking that if they continue to operate now at current capacity, they will be forced to close permanently in 1-12 months," Moheimani says.
She adds that all of this seems unfair since restaurants have been particularly committed to hygiene during the pandemic.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Ohio Restaurant Association president John Barker outlined some of the reasons restaurant owners are nervous.
“Many of them are facing sales that are down between 20-70% versus the same time a year ago," Baker said. "At the same time, they have all these PPE costs that are very significant. I even saw, over the last couple weeks, the installation of new air filtration systems and units in restaurants all over the place.”
In Northeast Ohio, one of the restaurant chains that’s made those types of investments is Zeppe’s.
“Shutting small business down is not the answer, in my opinion," according to Gianna Ciresi, whose family started Zeppe’s in 1986.
The Bedford Heights-based chain has grown throughout Northeast Ohio to include three larger Italian sit-down restaurants and more than a dozen pizzerias. Ciresi says businesses that are doing a good job keeping things clean and socially distanced should not have to face closure.
“Come in, make sure that restaurants are doing it accurately," she says. "I saw a friend post on Facebook the other day how, ‘Oh my gosh, we need shut down. I was at this bar and people were neck and neck, they weren't following wearing [of] masks, nobody was enforcing it.’ Those people give us a bad name. Go ahead, go in, check them out. [If] they're not doing it right? Then shut them down.
"But for the little guys like us," Ciresi continues, "we're doing the right things. Don't shut us down because we're doing everything possible that we could do to keep our people safe.”
Ciresi says carry out and delivery sales have helped, but closing dining rooms would eat into their already weakened bottom line.
“I'm not really sure how long we could ride it out," she says. "We're gonna do our best to, you know, maintain our carryout [and] delivery. Catering and parties are always a big thing this time of year; we usually have our Breakfast with Santa that we do this time of year, which is a wonderful thing we love to do for holiday time. We're not going to have any of that.”
In Hudson, Farinacci Pizza currently offers only carryout. Dave Janotka and his wife bought the place in 2009. A few years later, he had a kidney transplant. So he does not want to put himself, or his staff, at risk for COVID-19.
The dining room has been closed since March, when they switched to curbside pickup only.
“Pizza comes in a box [and] it's been in a box for years and years and years, so a lot of customers feel comfortable getting food like that," Janotka says. "I feel badly for restaurants that have foods which are not in a box – that you are used to dining in – more like steak and lobster and things. It's not the same, and I feel badly for them because of that. Some of them are my friends. I pray for them and say I don't know how they're going to make it, but I pray that you give them grace.”
During the spring shutdown, several bar and restaurant owners filed suit against DeWine and then-Health Department director Dr. Amy Acton, arguing that social distancing rules and the 10 p.m. “last call” were unconstitutional and unenforceable. Legal experts say another challenge could loom for the governor if he orders another shut down.
The new curfew goes into effect Thursday. Even the exceptions are intended to soften the blow to restaurants, allowing them to continue offering take out or drive-thru after 10 p.m.