BY ERIC SCHEFFER
Dear city of Asheville mayor, City Council and city manager; Buncombe County Board of Commissioners chairman, Board of Commissioners and county manager (plus Asheville Independent Restaurant Association members and the media):
I echo the sentiments of so many of my fellow culinarians, such as Michel Baudouin, owner of Bouchon downtown and RendezVous in East Asheville, and the rest of the hospitality community: Enough is enough!
You’re not to blame for these unprecedented times; however, you are responsible for the response or lack thereof.
My heart aches for my fellow restaurateurs, their employees and their families. Each day we are losing another restaurant, then another, then another. We are being systematically destroyed by our local, state and federal government mandates.
These mandates are about optics, not facts. Why has no one spoken to our segment of the business community to attain the real facts?
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, has said that no specific type of setting is responsible for the increase in cases and the virus’s spread, according to the News & Observer (avl.mx/8vs).
Meanwhile, research released in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the risks of eating in restaurants has been criticized as flawed. Among those critical voices is an N.C. State University food science expert who helped develop North Carolina’s program of best safety practices for restaurants during the pandemic, according to Raleigh’s WNCN (avl.mx/8vt).
Additionally, LAist, part of Southern California Public Radio, summarizes recent studies on the issue (avl.mx/8vu) and notes: “Still, none of these studies can definitively prove that restaurant dining causes infections, researchers say. That would require robust contact tracing.”
Why have other segments of our business community been given a pass or not held to the same mandated standards as restaurants are? These mandates affect our farmers, our poultry and beef growers and our fishermen, to name a few in the state of North Carolina.
I spoke to managers and/or workers at seven major grocery stores and big box stores in Asheville, who spoke to me candidly, yet confidentially. All of the stores mentioned have an average of 600 to 1,800 customers per day, some even more. On Christmas Eve, the vast majority of those stores saw their customer base double, and in some cases, triple!
While each store has mandatory mask requirement signs, every manager told me that at least 10%-15% of their consumers refuse to wear masks, and they are not enforcing the mandate. A few points:
• There is no social distancing enforced.
• There are no occupancy numbers enforced (except for one of them).
• There is no temperature checking.
• There is no regularly scheduled sanitizing of surfaces. For stores that have prepared foods and salad bars, there is no monitoring of exposed foods, prepared foods and/or the salad bars. Utensils are being used over and over again, with no monitoring or sanitizing.
• There is no sanitizing or policing addressing individuals touching fruits and vegetables as they are fondled, then placed right back on shelves or bins they originated from.
• There is no cleaning of debit card machines after each use.
• Sanitizing of shopping carts is done when they have enough employees available, but not regularly anymore.
• Customers are allowed to touch computers, cellphones and electronics without sanitizing after each contact.
That’s just a small amount I learned on my own in a four-hour period of time! Where’s the virus spread?
At one big box store, after asking a manager why so many people were not wearing masks, and there seemed to be no enforcement, her reaction was, “We are told if a customer is asked to put on a mask, and they refuse due to personal issues, we are not allowed to pursue or mandate they wear a mask.” Where’s the spread?
Why are the big box stores getting a pass?
Our industry has been one of the driving forces of our community’s financial success and an industry that has become the lifeblood of Asheville as a destination. We also are the most responsible when it comes to public health. We have to be; we are regulated to be.
Here is what I know:
• The majority of restaurants, bars and breweries enforce and maintain a “no mask, no service” policy.
• The majority of restaurants, bars and breweries enforce sanitation procedures of cleaning every table after each use/service, to include bathrooms and all exposed surfaces on a regular schedule.
• The majority of restaurants, bars and breweries already follow strict health department rules for sanitizing all surfaces in the front and back of the house regularly. We are regulated to do so.
• Many restaurants are temperature checking.
• Many restaurants are contact tracing.
• The majority of restaurants, bars and breweries are successfully enforcing occupancy numbers.
• The majority of restaurants, bars and breweries have created spaces, both outdoor and inside, to allow for reasonable social distancing.
• Many restaurants, bars and breweries have installed air purification systems, costing the owners thousands of dollars.
• Many restaurants, bars and breweries have an entrance/exit policy to control the flow and to ensure social distancing.
• The majority of restaurants have instituted noncontact to-go services.
• The majority of restaurants, bars and breweries have complied with all mandates.
• The majority of restaurants, bars and breweries have an occupancy of 50 persons or fewer at any one given time.
• Restaurants, bars and breweries that contribute to charities and feeding the homeless are now stopped from helping an already underserved population that the county and city fall short of helping.
And yet, for optics, leaders state that we are the problem?
Another cruel blow
A reduction to 30% occupancy for restaurants: This is a real head-scratcher because it’s a mandate that is difficult to directly track results and will do nothing but deliver another cruel blow to so many who have been barely hanging on!
Where is the science? Where are the facts? Where is the humanity in any of it?
Hospitality and culinary professionals are being mandated and regulated out of business for the sake of optics and at the senseless sacrifice of hardworking people and their families.
The ability of individuals to provide for their families and their employees is being taken away. Your constituents’ life savings and everything they have worked for is being destroyed. It is impossible for individuals to pay their rent and to feed their children.
Our local economy is being devastated.
All of this is without a plan to financially support those you mandated out of business, into a new life of poverty and homelessness!
The strategy has been to mandate, destroy and cripple, then we’ll figure out how and if we can financially support our community — all without a plan to deal with the mental health effects of long-term unemployment and loss of income.
All without simple dialogue with the hospitality and culinary professionals to see how we could work together to create a fact- and science-based approach to keeping our economy alive.
It takes courage to lead. It takes compassion to lead. Not self-interest, optics, politics and the worst of all: leaving us with a deafening silence from our leaders.
All while politicians — no matter whether local, state or federal — are still getting paid, getting access to health insurance and are still enjoying the perks of being politically privileged.
This is not about politics or the blame game. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. It’s caring about your fellow human being.
I am begging you to stop the insanity and to be courageous and compassionate enough to save the lives that are being destroyed in Buncombe County.
Eric Scheffer is an Asheville resident of 26 years and has been a local restaurateur for over 21 years.