18 months into the pandemic, here’s why some restaurants are still not fully open – The Columbus Dispatch

Berwick Manor Restaurant on Refugee Road offered a lunch buffet before the first cases of coronavirus were diagnosed in Ohio in the spring of 2020.

The well-regarded Italian eatery and caterer closed for dinner years ago, but continued to offer an all-you-can-eat lunch on weekdays until COVID began infecting Ohioans in large numbers last year.

The owners would like to bring back the buffet, but even as more Ohioans receive COVID vaccinations and pandemic restrictions disappear, Berwick can’t find enough workers to open for dine-in service.

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“People love this place, but we just can’t feasibly open for lunch,” co-owner Anthony Susi said.

Some Ohio restaurants still closed to in-person business due to COVID-19 pandemic

Most retailers and restaurants reopened to in-person business in the summer and fall of 2020 as Gov. Mike DeWine gradually lifted the restrictions intended to stem the spread of COVID.

But a small number remain voluntarily closed to in-person business well into 2021.

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It’s unclear how many businesses remain partially closed, but they are in a clear minority. Some of the holdouts have plans to let customers back in on a limited basis, and nearly all of them stayed in business to some extent, either through carryout and curbside service or online sales.

The forces keeping their doors closed go beyond fears of exposing customers and employees to COVID. 

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Rockmill Brewery, which has a home base in Fairfield County near Lancaster, has a tavern and restaurant in the Brewery District that resumed carryout service on Sept. 30 after a major rebranding, but isn’t allowing sit-down dining yet.

Owner Matthew Barbee cited a problem common in the hospitality industry during the COVID era.

“We don’t have any personnel to man the kitchen,” he said.

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The restaurant sector’s hiring woes are well-documented. Many frontline workers are unwilling to return to jobs that require close contact with customers — putting them at risk of COVID infection — and some big box stores now pay hourly workers more than $15 per hour, siphoning off employees who would otherwise work at mom-and-pop businesses that can’t compete with those wages.

Other holdouts say their unwillingness to reopen is directly related to the coronavirus.

Carryout keeps dining establishments ‘above water’ amid COVID-19 

Service Bar, the Short North restaurant and tasting room for the Middle West Spirits distillery, offered only carryout throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

The restaurant’s small dining room, which is currently closed for renovation, is not conducive to social distancing, co-founder Ryan Lang said.

“When we could switch to a safe takeout model, it was a no-brainer,” he said. “That allowed us to do good work in the confines of the space.”

These businesses have ways to make money outside of in-person service at their brick-and-mortar locations.

Middle West is still selling spirits through the distillery, for example.

Berwick caters large gatherings such as weddings, but also spent the height of the pandemic serving outdoor crowds at churches and schools, selling food from a truck and donating 10% of the proceeds to the church or school that hosted them, Susi said.

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“It was a way for them to make some money,” he said. And “it kept us above water.”

Virtually all of these businesses are eyeing a full reopening.

Berwick, for example, will offer a lunch buffet for several weeks in December. However, the offer is limited to parties of at least 15 customers, Susi said.

Any less “and it wouldn’t be profitable for us,” he said.

‘Our plans are to reopen cautiously’

Rather than reopening its Brewery District tavern as-is, Rockmill opened a new concept, Bandit Pizza, in its place. 

Pizza stays fresh through a 15- or 20-minute car ride, making it more conducive to carryout and delivery than the bar food formerly sold at the tavern. And Barbee — cognizant of the delta variant’s impact on Ohio’s COVID infection rate — wants to be prepared in the event of more business restrictions or a spike in cases that encourages patrons to take meals home.

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“Pizza is a fantastic format for carryout and delivery,” the brewery owner said. “That will take the pressure off the dining room regardless of what happens with restrictions that we might be facing.”

Others are attentively watching the news and keeping track of coronavirus figures to decide when they will open again.

“Our plans are to reopen cautiously and when we are back to a level that we feel is safe,” Lang said.