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Restaurants fight for survival under St. Louis County’s new COVID-19 restrictions

Protestors gather to support local restaurants in the face of County Executive Sam Page's order banning indoor dining.
Protestors gather to support local restaurants in the face of County Executive Sam Page’s order banning indoor dining. (West Newsmagazine photo)

As new restrictions impacting social gatherings and business activities went into effect on Nov. 17, some local business owners have said “enough is enough” and have vowed to fight for their survival.

The outcry from besieged local restauranteurs was heard immediately following the announcement from St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page. They were joined by the Missouri Restaurant Association who warned of the lasting impact of the new order.

“Restaurants in St. Louis County will be devastated by this shutting down of in-person dining. Many industry employees will find themselves out of work with the holidays approaching,” Bob Bonney, CEO of the MRA, said in a statement. “This temporary order will likely result in the permanent closure of many restaurants across the county.”

About 40 local restaurants, along with the MRA, joined forces to seek a court injunction to stop the county’s enforcement of the new “Safer at Home” mandates.

At Spiro’s in Chesterfield where infrared lamps and heat towers have been added to make outdoor dining safer and more comfortable [Photo: Facebook]

The “Safer at Home” guidelines require businesses to reduce capacity to 25% for indoor activities, including dining. Although outdoor seating is still an option, diners are less likely to see the appeal as we move into the coldest months of the year. Moreover, the MRA argues that restaurants pose no special risk to COVID spread.

“We are defying the order,” said Benjamin Brown, owner of Satchmo’s Bar & Grill in Chesterfield. “We know that COVID is a real threat we are facing together, but we don’t believe (the new restrictions) are really about saving lives.”

Brown, who is not alone in his opinion, argues the public has not been shown definitive data that indoor dining is a contributing factor in the surge of COVID-19 cases in the area. Instead, he contends that the real culprit could be private social gatherings but that since the county is lacking the authority to regulate those events, local restaurants became the scapegoat.

“(St. Louis City) Mayor (Lyda) Krewson and Dr. (Alex) Garza have both said there’s no data that supports that restaurants are contributing to the spread,” Brown said. ” … as someone who is directly impacted by this, I can’t help but feel this is more political than about saving lives.”

Brown has received two letters from the St. Louis County Department of Public Health directing him to “immediately correct all violations” of the public health order that shut down restaurants on Nov. 17.

The first letter was received on Thursday, Nov. 19; the second was received on Saturday, Nov. 21. The letters reference penalties of up to a $2,000 fine or up to one year in jail, or both. Regardless, Satchmo’s remains open. In an interview with KMOX Radio’s Maria Keena, Brown said it was the right thing to do.

“… it’s about the workers, the people that lost their only source of income without warning,” Brown told Keena. “They have mortgages to pay, they have food to put on the table. They’re college students that are living paycheck to paycheck that just had their income vanish. These are real people and the damage inflicted by this order is real. I know what’s right and I have to pursue that.”

St. Louis County COVID-19 Data as of Nov. 20, 2020 [Source: County website]

Garza is the head of the St. Louis Metropolitian Pandemic Task Force and widely viewed as a leading local authority on COVID-19. About the same time, St. Louis County was announcing new restrictions on businesses, Krewson declined to do the same but warned that social gatherings are likely the root cause of the new spread.

“Restaurants that follow appropriate guidelines related to social distancing, masking, and cleaning and sanitizing, are as safe as other retail establishments not ordered to close by the county’s order,” the MRA said in a statement.

But outside St. Louis’ city limits, Page and the County Health Department have jurisdiction on health policy and the government’s response to the pandemic.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page was asked about the reaction and refusal to comply from some area business owners during his Nov. 18 press conference.

“We’ve been dealing with this for eight months in every business sector,” Page said. “And there are some individuals and there are some businesses that are wired for confrontation.”

But Brown believes its Page who is playing politics and starting the wrong fight.

“I think there is political pressure (on Page) to act in some way,” Brown said. “… he feels the pressure to act, but he can’t really legislate how people behave in their own homes. And so he has to do something. It’s just unfortunate that restaurants happen to be who he’s acting against.”

‘A slap in the face’

Shortly after the lawsuit to stop the county’s enforcement was filed, Page’s office announced a new series of financial assistance directed to local restaurants. Coined the Small Business Rapid Relief Fund, $3 million in CARES Act funding is now available for county restaurant owners. The money will be distributed in grants of $5,000 to be used for operating expenses or business costs, including payroll and rent.

“These grants come at a critical time for small businesses and restaurants in St. Louis County,” said Page. “We know these businesses have been acutely affected by the pandemic and our efforts to control the spread of the virus.”

Nov. 21: A man hangs tarps outside of El Maguey in Chesterfield to provide more shelter for outside seating (Photo: Jeffrey Bricker)

While the assistance is needed, some restaurant owners said that $5,000 is just a drop in the bucket.

“For the average restaurant, that equates to one day of sales under normal circumstances,” Brown said. “It feels like a slap in the face … it’s out of proportion to the sacrifices we’re being asked to make.”

St. Louis County Councilmember Tim Fitch [R-District 3] agrees that the $5,000 per restaurant is not enough. He’s asked the county’s top legal authority to review whether the county council has the authority to defer tax bills for impacted businesses.

“Can St. Louis County abate taxes for pandemic-related businesses? Can we extend the tax deadline?” Fitch said. “We need to determine options.”

Personal property and real estate taxes are due in St. Louis County by Dec. 31. Fitch would like to see that deadline extended as far out as April 30, 2021. It’s not clear when, and even if, the county council will actually take up the issue. Meanwhile, the lifeline struggling restaurants had hoped might come from a local judge was rejected.

Over $24 million was budgeted for economic recovery specifically for “helping non-essential businesses re-open, helping restaurants return to dine-in service, and pushing the local economy forward.” However, a review of the data available through the county’s web portal does not detail what industries have received any of this money so far. Recipient names are also not included via the web portal.

Brown said he has not received any CARES act money from the county and when he tried to apply earlier in the year, he was told it was all gone.

A judge weighs in

On Nov. 20, Associate Circuit Judge John R. Lasater denied the plaintiff’s request for an emergency injunction. This was a setback for local restaurants who were hopeful they could get the court to press hold on the “Safer at Home” rules. However, the MRA vowed that the fight was still not over.

“The restaurants have not lost the case … ” read a statement released to the press by the MRA after Judge Lasater’s ruling. The MRA noted that legal avenues remained and that they were still hopeful the courts would ultimately rule in their favor.

As of press time, no further court dates have been announced. With the new restrictions in place and also without an expiration date, it now seems to be a waiting game between county officials, local restaurants, and the virus.

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