It wasn’t exactly the holiday greeting Jane Anderson, executive director of Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, was expecting three days before Christmas. The phone call from Tim Love, director of economic development and governmental relations for Buncombe County, certainly didn’t bring any cheer to Asheville’s beleaguered food and beverage industry.
Since March, Love has coordinated the online meetings — at first, held daily, now twice weekly — of the county’s COVID-19 Business Response Workgroup, which consists of city and county officials and representatives from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, Explore Asheville and AIR. His Dec. 22 call to Anderson was a heads-up that Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County commissioners were planning to lower restaurant capacity to 30% from the previously mandated 50%.
“He wanted my input,” she says. “But I had the impression it was a done deal, to be announced Dec. 23 at 4 p.m. and go into effect at 5 p.m. Christmas Eve.” Anderson voiced strongly to Love that the lack of notice didn’t provide restaurant owners with adequate time to respond. She also expressed grave concern that the mandate, which deviates from state policies implemented by the governor, would go into effect just as restaurants were grabbing the last chunk of good business before the traditional and expected January downturn. She urged officials to rethink the order, particularly the timing.
The next morning, Love let her know that Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Brownie Newman, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Buncombe County Public Health Director Stacie Saunders and Emergency Preparedness Director Fletcher Tove would still issue the reduced-capacity announcement at end of day on Dec. 23, but it would not be implemented until 5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 2. (Xpress reached out to Love for comment, but he was unavailable.)
“In the scheme of things, it was better than Christmas Eve, but Jan. 2 is also a Saturday night in a holiday weekend,” says Anderson, noting that some local restaurants were already booked at 50% capacity for that weekend and were forced to cancel reservations. “In my nearly eight years at AIR, I have never had so much reaction [from AIR member restaurants] to anything — calls, texts, emails day and night. There’s so much anger and so much frustration. People are hot.”
In response, Anderson sent an email the morning of Christmas Eve to AIR members with the county’s full declaration, encouraging them to express their concerns to City Council and the county commissioners.
Among those who took that advice were Joe Scully and Kevin Westmoreland, co-owners of Corner Kitchen and Chestnut. “Kevin and I both sent a letter,” Scully says. “Kevin’s letter was diplomatically and beautifully written, and mine was your basic Jersey rant. Vanessa [Salomo, co-owner and director of operations] edited and helped rewrite it.”
The messaging of the two letters may have been different, but they were both meant to convey the same thing: The reduced-capacity order would have a dire effect on their business and employees.
“There is no way we can keep the staff we have now at further reduced capacity, so no matter what, we will have layoffs, and staff will have to go back on unemployment,” says Scully.
Eric Scheffer, owner of Jettie Rae’s and Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian, says the new restrictions put his restaurants in the same boat as Scully’s. “What this means for my restaurants is more layoffs, more hardship, more loss, more heartbreaking conversations, more sleepless nights and no relief from the city, county or state,” he wrote in an email to Xpress. “You can’t mandate that business owners shut their doors and lay people off without compensation to the owner of a business and the employees — compensation that should be worked out before the mandate is put in place, not to be figured out when it is too late.”
A September report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked restaurant dining with increased risk for COVID-19 infection. But Scheffer, like many in the local industry, believes Buncombe County’s new restriction, which is inconsistent with the state’s current dine-in capacity of 50%, unfairly targets restaurants as sources of community spread. Food businesses, he says, have been adhering to stringent safety protocols and policies, and several local restaurants — including Jettie Rae’s — have voluntarily reported positive coronavirus cases or exposure among staff and subsequently closed for deep cleaning and testing of all employees before reopening.
Anderson agrees. “These regulations continue to hit the same group of businesses,” she says. “I have said this dozens of times: The safest places I go in Buncombe County are AIR restaurants.”
According to CDC guidelines, however, indoor dining remains a “higher risk” activity for the spread of COVID-19, even with reduced capacity and social distancing measures in place.
Uncertainty and anxiety
The new mandate, paired with winter sabbaticals already planned by AIR members, including Smoky Park Supper Club, Avenue M and El Gallo, means that for at least in the first part of 2021, there will be fewer AIR restaurants to visit.
John Tressler, co-owner of Blackbird restaurant, made the hard decision to fully suspend operations from Jan. 2 through Feb. 3. On Christmas Eve, Tressler reached out to the officials who issued the reduced-capacity order, letting them know that as a result of closing, Blackbird would be forced to furlough its 30 employees.
“At this time,” he wrote, “there are zero measures in place to give extra assistance to these wonderful people who are all residents of Buncombe County. So, our question is this: What do you all plan to do in order to make it possible for our staff to survive on unemployment alone?”
Tressler says that as of Dec. 28, the only response he had received was from Commissioner Terri Wells, who wrote that it was her intent “to continue to assess how to best address the needs of the community.” (Xpress reached out to Newman but did not receive a response.)
In a recent press release from Buncombe County government, Newman declared that officials will reevaluate the policy by Friday, Jan. 22. In the meantime, uncertainty and anxiety are sure to be pervasive among restaurant owners as they struggle to make decisions that will impact their businesses and staffs. “The plan now is to go forward, follow the rules and try the 30% capacity,” Scully says. “It’s real money we will lose, and it’s real people we have to lay off. I can’t even say I’m cautiously optimistic at this point. All I can say is we’re going to bear down and try to make it through to the other side.”