North Carolina’s next phase of reopening may not help struggling restaurants, private clubs

by Kari Travis

Raleigh, NC – For North Carolina’s restaurants and private clubs, a future of social distancing after COVID-19 is full of question marks. While some hope reopening dining rooms and watering holes will revitalize the industry, others fear a comeback is impossible — even if leaders were to allow openings sooner than May 22. 

photo by Dan Gold

Hospitality workers were dealt a crippling blow March 17, when Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order forcing all restaurants and bars to close dining rooms and in-house service. Takeout and delivery for food was still allowed — a measure that helped keep some doors open. But as many as 65% of North Carolina’s 19,000 restaurants may not survive the two-month shutdown as the state moves into Phase Two of Cooper’s reopening plan, said Lynn Minges, president of the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association. For bars that serve only liquor and cater to the social climate of nightlife, the situation may be far worse. 

Some restaurants and bars already are permanently closed, and others are weighing the consequences of reopening in a world where customers may not be ready to get out and mingle. 

Morrisville’s Trali Irish Pub announced in a May 7 Facebook post it would close for good. Chuck’s, a Raleigh burger joint and part of the acclaimed Ashley Christensen Restaurants group, will also never reopen. Many establishments, such as The Goodyear House in Charlotte, aren’t getting enough takeout and delivery orders to justify overhead costs. Temporary closings may turn permanent. 

On Tuesday, May 12, six Republican members of the N.C. Council of State — the 10 statewide elected executive branch officers — pushed for a meeting with Cooper to “discuss plans for reopening the economy.” Cooper was “lagging” in his communication and providing “minimal guidance,” the members said in a letter. 

During a Tuesday news conference, Cooper said he won’t ease more restrictions before May 22. The governor said he has offered to brief the Council of State, and that he “looks forward” to the meeting.

“Pandemics cannot be partisan,” Cooper said. “We’re going to rely on the science and the facts to tell us when we need to reopen. I know that people are hurting because of this virus, and I know our economy is hurting because of this virus. But the health of our people and our economy go hand in hand.”

When Cooper limited restaurants and closed private clubs in March, he said his goal was to “flatten the curve” and bolster the state’s health care system, said Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies for the John Locke Foundation. 

“Now it’s May, past Cooper’s original reopening date of April 29, and last week Cooper even declared, ‘We have flattened the curve,’ to which he added, ‘but we haven’t eliminated COVID-19,’ as if that was the goal behind the shutdowns,” Sanders said. “Despite declaring victory over ‘the curve,’ he has us set to be one of the very last states to open back up. Why?”

Neighboring South Carolina has opened restaurants for business, suggesting 50% capacity in dining rooms. Should North Carolina follow suit? CJ asked Minges of the NCRLA. Would it help? 

Even if the governor opened all dining and drinking establishments immediately, those businesses would need time to prepare, Minges told CJ. Cooper hasn’t finalized guidance for restaurants and bars, but conversations between NCRLA and his office are ongoing every week.

“It’s a myth that we can lift an executive order and get right back to business,” Minges said. 

So the gears are turning — but restaurants have a long list of things to do before they can turn their lights back on. 

LM Restaurants, the company that owns the Carolina Ale House sports bar chain and several other popular restaurants across the Southeast, is preparing to reopen its North Carolina dining rooms May 22, said LM Restaurants spokeswoman Katherine Goldfaden. The group is prepared to limit capacity to 50%, enforce social distancing, and provide disposable menus. Employees are cleaning, rearranging furniture, and changing floor plans, Goldfaden said. 

“We’re all ready to work, but we want to work safely,” Goldfaden said. 

LM is determined to open all locations — but nothing is certain, she said. Closings are a possibility, although certainly a last resort. In South Carolina, some of Carolina Ale House’s franchise restaurants have reopened. 

Unfortunately, people aren’t flocking out for wings, burgers, and beers, Goldfaden said. 

Private club owners are less optimistic. In the world of bars, cocktail lounges, and dance floors, social distancing is next to impossible.  

“We’re supposed to all be six feet apart,” said one Raleigh nightclub owner who didn’t wish to be named. “In all honesty, our concepts aren’t designed for that.” 

At 50% customer capacity, most alcohol establishments can’t pay rent, keep the lights on, and pay staff — much less maintain the inventory they need to make drinks. Since state law doesn’t allow takeout or delivery for cocktails, bars have been stripped of all earning potential.

“It’s a Catch-22 for us,” the bar owner told CJ.  

The General Assembly could pass a provision allowing restaurants and private clubs to sell mixed drinks in closed containers for takeout and delivery, says Sanders. The legislature came close to including such a measure in the COVID-19 relief package it enacted two weeks ago, but the provision was ultimately cut. 

Lawmakers should reconsider, Minges told CJ. No one is talking about selling cocktails in open containers or encouraging people to drink and drive. The law should be sensible, she said, since closed containers are easy to obtain, and mixed drinks can be placed in the trunk of a car. 

Any opportunity to make money is welcome, especially since it’s likely to be at least July before bars and dining rooms can boost customer capacity beyond 50%, Minges said. 

But the biggest question still lingers, Goldfaden said. Even after dining tables are set and bar stools pulled out, when the lights are on and the kitchen is stocked, will customers show up to spend what little money this pandemic has left in their pockets? 

“There are no guarantees.”