Nov. 20—Since the COVID-19 pandemic started eight months ago, local restaurant owners have been overwhelmed.

In March, they had to shut down their restaurants, figure out how to launch carryout only models, and try to navigate unemployment and loans and grants that could help them and their employees stay afloat.

Then, when restrictions were lifted in May, they were frantically buying Plexiglass dividers, trying to restaff their dining rooms, fretting about whether to close down when staff members were exposed to the virus outside of work, and arguing with customers who refused to comply with mask rules — all while watching their sales numbers drop to less than half of what they were the year before.

And after all that, they say, now they fear they're back at square one. Amid rising COVID-19 numbers and pleas from overloaded local hospital officials, they fear that the county's public health officer, Dr. Garold Minns, could order restaurants to return to the carryout-only model they were required to follow from March until May.

On Wednesday, Minns and the Sedgwick County Commission heard from Wesley Medical Center officials, who said the hospital is overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and that 10% of those patients would probably die. The officials pleaded with the commission to do more to limit the spread of the virus, including shutting down in-person dining, organized teams sports and venues hosting large gatherings.

Commissioners urged the county health officer to draft an order with more restrictions on businesses and private gatherings.

It's too much, said a group of local restaurant owners who gathered for a socially distanced discussion this week on the patio at Norton's Brewing Company, 125 N. St. Francis. In their view, the focus on restaurants from well-intentioned public health officials is not only unfair but not warranted. COVID numbers, they say, don't support the narrative that their industry is the problem or even a main cause of the local spike in COVID-19 cases.

They feel like scapegoats, they say, easy targets for public officials who want to appear to be doing something to curb the spread of the disease. And they won't survive being scapegoats much longer, said many members of the group, which included the owners of Nortons Brewing Company, The Kitchen, Doo-Dah Diner, Twelve Restaurant & Bar, Picasso's Pizzeria, Peerless, The Monarch, Headshots Bar & Grill and Fuzzy's Tacos.

"All of us as an industry, we have done everything we've been asked to do, but we are still the ones that get pointed out, and there's no facts substantiating that pointing," said Natasha Gandhi-Rue, who says the focus on restaurants has affected not only her bottom line at The Kitchen but also her mental health. "We are constantly making adjustments. We're sucking it up. But anytime there's a need to raise the fear factor in our community, it's all of us that are to blame. And that needs to stop."

Where's the data?

Data about how COVID-19 is spreading in communities across the nation has been ever-changing and all over the board.

In the early days of the virus, places where people gather in large groups — concert venues, restaurants and bars — were among the industries most closely examined. In Wichita, a late March order from the county closed businesses across Wichita and limited restaurants to offering carryout or delivery only. Many kept operating under that model throughout the order. Many others closed and waited it out.

Restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms in early May with restrictions. Tables had to be limited to 10 people, and parties had to be kept six feet apart. Back-to-back booths were allowed only with barriers in between them. Meanwhile, local bars saw their mandatory closing times changed several times. It's currently 11 p.m.

The restrictions tightened and loosened over the next several months with various votes from local governing bodies. And since then, restaurants have settled into a pattern that diners have learned to navigate, based on their comfort levels.

Many restaurants are strictly adhering to social distancing and masking rules. Others aren't. And until recently, county and city officials have been reluctant to do much to enforce the rules.

Still, the restaurant owners say, they have not become big contributors to the COVID-19 outbreaks locally or statewide.

They pointed to the most recent KDHE dashboard, which shows that of the 409 COVID-19 clusters in Kansas, 1 is at a bar or a restaurant as opposed to 12 at colleges, 51 at private businesses, 11 at religious gatherings and 52 at schools. And a look at the overall cluster count shows a similar disparity. Of 1,189 reported clusters, 17 came from bars or restaurants as opposed to 52 at universities, 240 at private businesses, 39 at religious gathering and 83 at schools.

Adam Mills, the executive director of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, said his group recently conducted a survey of members, and the results showed that restaurants are not major spreaders of the virus. Among the most significant findings, he said, is that of the owners who responded, 97.4% said they were active in the day-to-day operations of their restaurants but only 3.4% of them reported having or having had the virus. And all of those who did report an infection said they believed they got it outside of the restaurant.

That same survey showed 33% of respondents reporting that their sales were down 26%-50% over the same time last year, and that although 54.7% said they didn't think they'd have to close permanently within the year, 21.4 % said they'd be able to remain in business for only another three to six months under current conditions.

"Restaurants aren't to blame for the cases, so why are we talking about closing them?" Mills said. "We have said from the beginning that restaurants who are following guidelines and industry best practices are as safe as any activity you can take part in during these times with the pandemic looming."

The KRHA and the National Restaurant Association both also took issue with the much-publicized CDC study widely reported on in September that said adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were about twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant in the 14 days before becoming sick than those who tested negative.

The study, whose respondents came from 10 different states whose restaurant restrictions varied greatly, did not take into account all the other places those respondents had visited, and there was no proof that respondents picked up the virus at a restaurant, the association argued. They both issued responses at the time, saying that "correlation does not equal causation."

Of the restaurant owners gathered to talk this week, none reported having contracted the virus and their employees who have contracted it have done so outside of work.

And although that evidence is only anecdotal, they say, it's solidified their belief that, with all the safety precautions they've been required to adopt, restaurants might be among the safer places people could be if they insist on leaving their houses.

"We're the industry killing ourselves to adhere to and follow the rules and police ourselves and make our customers follow guidelines," said Nortons' owner Dan Norton. "I don't know why we're being made to be the bad guys. I really don't."

The restaurant owners say they've come to believe, and the data supports their feeling, that the spike in infections is largely fueled by at-home gatherings. One of them said he knows of at least three people who have set up at-home speakeasies in their garages or basements, and once the bars and restaurants are closed for the night at 11 p.m., groups of 30 or more people retreat there.

The restrictions are forcing people underground, they said, and the numbers are rising.

"They're going to gather whether we're open or not," said Dan Norton's wife and partner, Becky. "I think it's actually safer to have a space at our places to gather because we're making them follow the rules. We're following the sanitation processes. We want to keep ourselves and our staff safe. Why take that away from them? They're still going to do it, and it's going to be even more unsafe."

Find another way

The restaurant owners say that, if their industry is going to survive locally, a more thoughtful approach to restaurant restrictions is necessary.

Becky Norton said that she and other restaurant owners know that there are places in town that are flouting the rules. But rather than make a blanket order, she said, officials should deal with the offenders.

"They should go business by business and not target the industry as a whole," she said. "We all know who is not following the rules. They do not. And that's a problem because they're looking at our whole industry."

Restaurant owners say one of their main frustrations is that other types of business aren't following restrictions but are never singled out or threatened with closure — places like big box stores, hardware stores and grocery stores where mask compliance is spotty and social distancing appears to be optional.

"Everyone knows the places in town that don't follow the rules, and they're still operating," Dan Norton said. "Maybe we should focus our energies on making sure the people who are not following the rules are the ones suffering. Not the ones that are."

Other owners suggested new types of restrictions, where restaurants and bars could be open for six or eight hours each day but be able to choose which hours so they could capitalize on the times their customers tend to come in. It's different at businesses where some rely on breakfast or lunch crowds and some rely on after-hours drinkers and diners.

But if the restaurant industry is going to continue to be the focus of restrictions, said Mills of KRHA, it's going to have to get some help.

"As of right now, there is no backstop for businesses," he said. "The PPP and EIDL loan programs are over, and there was never any significant relief for our industry members in the county or state CARES Act money. Bonus Unemployment Insurance is also a thing of the past. If they close down restaurants again, there will be dire consequences to many."

If another order sends restaurants back to the to-go only model, the owners said, they'll have to lay off all of their employees — again.

Closing and reopening is costly, and some said they're not sure they'd survive another round of it.

On Friday afternoon, Gov. Laura Kelly announced that the state had set aside $20 million in CARES Act money to help hard-hit businesses, such as restaurants, bars, movie theaters and private colleges.

Cody Lonergan, who runs Peerless bar at 919 E. Douglas, said he fears a future where Wichita's dining landscape looks like every other city's.

"With another shutdown, you're not going see Applebee's closing or Texas Roadhouse," he said. "You're going to lose all the places that are only specially unique to Wichita."


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