Although the state of Arkansas is easing dining out restrictions, some restaurants are struggling to stay in business and keep their staff and customers safe.

By Obed Lamy
Arkansascovid.com

Matthew McClure, executive chef of The Hive, a popular Bentonville restaurant, has faced a dual dilemma during the COVID-19 crisis, one that many restaurants and bars face across the country: how to stay in business while still ensuring the safety of his employees and family.

After shutting down for three months, The Hive returned to operations on July 1 with around a third of its 75-plus employees and a significant drop in revenues. ‘’It is not a great spot to be in, but it is better than just being closed,’’ McClure said.

On September 9, the state took a new step toward relaxing COVID-19-related restrictions by allowing restaurants to expand their activity to up to 66% of their total seating capacity for indoor and outdoor dining areas and tables six feet apart, Arkansas Health Department said in a statement. 

But the Hive decided to go below the target: roughly 55 seats, representing 40% of its total seating capacity, have been made available for guests.  McClure said that the constraint is not a lack of room to socially distance the seats but a decrease in the client base, resulting in a slowdown in business activities and travels in Bentonville. ”I think a lot of people are deterred to go out to eat because we’ve learned a lot more about how this virus spreads,” McClure said. ”And you know, being in closed buildings and rooms and not wearing a mask is not the best recipe.”

There is some evidence suggesting that people dining in restaurants can contract COVID-19. A Sept. 10, 2020 study from the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention found that people tested positive to COVID-19 are twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant the last 14 days than those with negative test results.

The study was conducted on 314 adults who were tested for COVID-19 in 10 states, including California, Tennessee, and Washington. The CDC warned that it ”might not be representative of the United States population”.

Even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance, air circulation in restaurants might affect virus transmission, the researchers said.

An Arkansas Department of Health survey came up on Sept. 17 with different findings: 3% of the active COVID-19 cases reported having visited restaurants in the 14 days before diagnosis. The highest rate, 10%, was found among patients who went to retail stores. 

”I believe that our restaurants are really working hard to comply with the guidelines,” said Gov. Hutchinson, commenting on the CDC study at a press conference on Sept.11.

More than 88,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported in Arkansas since the pandemic started. A report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force on September 27 placed Arkansas in the ”red zone” for COVID –19 and recommended closing bars and restricting indoor dining to 25% capacity.

Increasing their reopening and following the health guidelines at the same time is difficult for restaurants to balance. ”If we follow one, we cannot follow the other,” said Abbi Moore, assistant manager at JJ’S Grill on Dickson street in Fayetteville. 

Abbi Moore is an assistant manager at JJ’S Grill, a college bar in Fayetteville. Photo by Obed Lamy.

JJ’S Grill has not hit more than 50% of its seating capacity, only 24 tables, while the demand is strong. ”There are still just as many people on the street trying to come in all the time, but obviously, we cannot let them because we don’t have space,” said Moore. Last month, some 25 customers were on the waiting list and had to stay outside for up to two hours, she said.

This reduction in available seat capacity leads to a drop in revenues. ”On weekends, we do about $10,000 less in sales than what we did this time last year,” said Moore.

Montine McNulty, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, said “it’s hard for a small restaurant to sometimes even be in business. You have fewer customers and fewer revenues.”

The economic devastation experienced by restaurant owners is still being evaluated. At a press conference on Sept. 9, Steuart Walton, the chair of the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force, said that restaurants’ revenues fell 35% below their levels from last August.

According to the Journal of Accountancy, small businesses across the country have received loans for a total of $525 billion through the Paycheck Protection Program to stay afloat during the COVID-19 crisis. The Hive was not eligible for this program because it is technically not considered a small business, McClure said.

”We are operating essentially in the middle of a hurricane and trying to survive” McClure said. ”But until we get a vaccine, we’re probably not gonna see the light at the end of the tunnel and really see things turn around.”