Restaurant, bar owners brace for harsher virus restrictions

Beer is best served at a temperature between 34 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and beginning Saturday, that might also be the external temperature Sauk Valley patrons will have to endure to drink or to eat at their favorite watering hole or restaurant.

Drinking and eating outdoors amid Northwestern Illinois fall weather was on the minds of several local bar and restaurant owners Tuesday evening, after Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced their establishments and others in Region 1 will be subject to tighter restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

"Outdoor dining in Illinois, during fall, at night — none of that sounds good," said Matt Prescott, the owner of five bars and restaurants in Dixon, Rock Falls and Sterling. "And if this stretches into the winter, who's going to want to eat outside? Nobody."

Under the harsher rules, which take effect Saturday, no indoor service will be allowed at bars or restaurants, reservations will be required, and all outdoor service must conclude by 11 p.m.

Patrons will also be prohibited from ordering or waiting at the bar, and all indoor gatherings must be limited to 25 guests or 25% of overall room capacity.

Those provisions are some of the COVID-19 resurgence mitigations Pritzker announced would be implemented across Boone, Carroll, DeKalb, Jo Daviess, Lee, Ogle, Stephenson, Whiteside and Winnebago counties, because the region's seven-day average of positive cases was 8% or higher for three consecutive days.

That rate, according to Illinois Department of Public Health officials, was 2 percentage points lower two weeks ago. Hospital admission rates for COVID-like-illnesses were also lower last week in Region 1, state officials said.

Local restaurant and bar owners largely agreed they'll experience a significant financial strain under the harsher restrictions, especially because the linchpin of their business —alcohol and indoor dining sales — will be removed.

Prescott said he'll be able to keep kitchen and support staff employed through revenue from carryout orders, but without bar tabs and checks from large dining parties, there's "nothing else he can do" than to reduce the number of waitstaff and bartenders at his locations.

"People will probably still do carryout, but 20 to 50% of my business is selling a drink, and selling one to-go doesn't pay the bills," Prescott said.

Prescott, who owns Candlelight Inn in Rock Falls and Sterling, the Palmyra Pub in Dixon, the Corner Tap in Rock Falls and Brink's in Sterling, said owners and employees at bars that serve only alcohol indoors will likely suffer the largest losses from the restrictions.

One owner of a booze-only bar, Tim McNinch, of the Rusty Fox Wine and Alehouse in Sterling, said he plans to close the bar's doors and offer no services during the enhanced mitigation period.

"We'll stay open through Friday night and then just close up shop," McNinch said. "And I'll have to lay off the employees, because there's no other way to stay open."

The Rusty Fox doesn't offer outdoor seating for its patrons, and McNinch said there's not enough time before the restrictions take effect to set-up the special accommodations.

"The bar is just gonna close temporarily," McNinch said. "But for anyone who is a bar owner that doesn't have outdoor seating, this is just going to be devastating."

Janna Groharing, the Executive Director of Sterling Main Street, said a lot of local businesses suffered during Phase 3 of the state's reopening plan, when indoor dining and drinking were prohibited, but that they recovered some after the region shifted to Phase 4, when indoor services were allowed again.

But now, those gains are at risk of being lost again, especially if restaurants and bars didn't invest in curbside and to-go tools like online ordering platforms and more support staff.

"It has to be frustrating to move from normal operations to not normal operations, to get comfortable with the changes, and then be forced to switch strategies again," Groharing said.

Part of that frustration also stems from the ambiguity of how long the resurgence mitigations will stay in place, she said.

For the region to return to normal Phase 4 restrictions, its positivity rate must average at most 6.5% for three consecutive days. If the rate increases or remains at 8% in the next two weeks, even more restraints could be implemented.

"If you're a restaurant owner right now, how do you realistically plan your food orders or judge whether to keep or lay-off your employees, if you're going to have to rehire them again in two weeks?" Groharing said.

That dilemma is currently in the lap of Jim Gallentine, who owns Mama Cimino's in Dixon.

He said the moves between the phases allowed him to hire back some servers he had to let go, and to hire more kitchen staff because of the uptick in carryout and delivery orders.

But now, all of those jobs are again at risk, and Gallentine said he doesn't know how far he can stretch the revenue he recovered during the latest phase.

"These rules are just terrible for the community, the owners, the employees, everyone," Gallentine said. "They're going to have an adverse effect on everyone."

Even still, some restaurant and bar owners may be able to use the experience of the previous restrictions to prepare for the upcoming clamp downs.

Both Prescott and McNinch said they were grateful for the four days of notice before the mitigations must take effect, and that if they only last a few weeks, most businesses will likely survive.

McNinch, who also owns Air Play Espresso and Bakery, said he'll keep the coffee shop open for pick-up and take-out only, which have been a route of recovery for his earlier losses.

The now familiar services have also given him a chance to open a second, drive-thru only location, at the old Allen Grennan funeral home on Fourth Avenue.

"When things are down, that's when you plan for the future," McNinch said.

A lot of Oregon’s businesses are on the “tipping edge” of trying to survive, Oregon City Administrator Darin DeHaan said.

“We’ve said all along the last thing we want is to lose a business,” DeHaan said. “It goes back to how we can help. If grants become available we could do that, or encourage people to still support them.”

Jason O’Neil, owner of Cork & Tap in Oregon, thinks the new mitigation restrictions may force his doors closed once again until circumstances change.

Cork & Tap doesn’t usually utilize outdoor seating. O’Neil said the state not giving bars and restaurants at least the weekend to plan, change things and alert everyone makes things “extremely difficult.”

“I don’t think it’s fair,” O’Neil said. “But it is what it is. It would be hard to justify staying open. It may shut us down.”

O’Neil said he knew something was close to happening with the state, but he didn’t know when it would happen or when the new restrictions would start to be enforced. He wishes the state would have given businesses the entire week to prepare. It makes it “near impossible,” he said.

During the shutdown closer to the start of the pandemic, Cork & Tap did drink kits and growler fills with outdoor pull-up sales. He thinks people would be less supportive if that was tried again due to the financial impacts COVID-19 has had on area residents over time.

O’Neil isn’t sure whether Cork & Tap will be closed starting Saturday, but that seems to be the way things are trending.

“We don’t know when we’d be able to reopen,” O’Neil said. “I don’t know. Closing is what we’ve been discussing. Without people in the facility, we’ve talked shutting down until circumstances change.”

DeHaan said the city is already looking at ways to help its businesses during the mitigation period. Among the possibilities are public education, encouraging people to patronize curbside pickup and helping with public space utilization. Outdoor heaters to extend outdoor dining during the colder months could also be a possibility.

“It’s a blow to us locally,” DeHaan said. “I know all the trouble our businesses have gone through and we have to find a way to create ways to help them.”

DeHaan said the city had been monitoring the situation with the recent uptick in cases. Oregon has just 60 cases in its zip code according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. DeHaan said he feels “lumped in” with the rest of the area, but knows Oregon isn’t immune.

Oregon’s tourism attributes make it a destination for those from out of the area, and that could make for additional possible exposure, he said.

“This certainly is frustrating, but we don’t have a bubble around us," he said. "We can’t be isolated even if our numbers are low compared to the rest of the area.”