Business owners call for removal of pandemic dining, alcohol restrictions

SALT LAKE CITY — Several locally owned dining and liquor establishment owners are making urgent pleas to state leadership to pull back on the mandates meant to address the spread of the coronavirus outbreak to allow the businesses to regain their financial footing following months and months of significant economic losses.

“It’s time to remove the restricted limitation around our dining room capacities,” said Michael McHenry, founder and CEO of the McHenry Group, which operates restaurants in Salt Lake City, Draper and Provo.

“Let’s open up our dining room and let’s give the community the choice whether they want to sit at that table or not.”

For many restaurants and bars throughout the country, state mandates limiting their ability to operate have wreaked havoc with their bottom lines and the income of the people who work in those establishments.

In some states, the edicts reduce the number of patrons who can visit at a specific time and/or limit the hours those businesses can operate. And in the case of bars and nightclubs, the orders can constrict the hours for serving alcohol — any and all of which can have a devastating effect on those enterprises’ revenue generation.

Bars in Utah are currently not allowed to serve alcohol after 10 p.m.

On Monday, McHenry posted on Instagram, calling for local leaders to “Open Up Our Dining Rooms Or Pay Our Losses…”

The social media post reads: ”Here’s the reality — even full dining room capacities, 50% to 70% less seating under current mandates with wait times up to 45 minutes will not survive long-term. Waitlists prove the marketplace deems restaurants as safe and a place of normalcy under these conditions.

Allie Chernosky cleans a table and chairs at OAK Wood Fire Kitchen in Draper on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“Here’s why — the fixed expenses and majority of variable expenses associated with current capacities is at or close to the same as operating at 100% dining room capacity.

“Here’s the solution — ‘Open Up Dining Rooms,’ remove unreasonable mandates (dining room capacities & curfews) and let us contend safely for our viability, team members and families. Every business is essential when livelihood depends on it my friends. Government must stop picking winners and losers. Who’s ready to fight for Utah Small Business, the very heartbeat of our community?”

McHenry lamented that state and local leaders are creating a crisis for small businesses through issuing what he says are burdensome mandates that have ravaged their industry.

“I’m not asking government — national or local — to provide us with any more resource or stimulation. I’m saying, ‘Give us the economy we need to stand on our own safely,’” he said. “(This is) for the viability of our businesses and the livelihood and stability of our team members, as well as serving the very communities that we love. It’s really about challenging what I believe to be an unreasonable mandate.”

On Tuesday, another 2,333 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Utah, plus 23 more deaths. Hospital intensive care units are nearly at capacity with coronavirus patients.

Still, McHenry said he believes individuals should be allowed to make their own choices regarding whether they patronize restaurants or bars.

“It’s time that we leave that decision up to to the community,” he said. “We (should) enable that choice and right and let us as business owners do our part to take care of our community and act in the best interests of all stakeholders.”

Earlier this month, a group of bar owners penned a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert imploring him to reverse the decree prohibiting bars from serving alcohol to customers after 10 p.m.

Oak Wood Fire Kitchen in Draper on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.Mateo Coletti tosses dough into the air at OAK Wood Fire Kitchen in Draper on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“This letter is sent on behalf of the undersigned bar licensees who are on the verge of economic ruin due to the 10 p.m. alcohol service cut-off contained in the State Public Health Order 2020-25 for high transmission areas. In COVID-19 press conferences and business publications, you have repeatedly stated your “goal” is to keep every business open during the pandemic.

“We agree with this goal and support reasonable regulations that are aimed to preventing the spread of COVID-19. We do not believe, however, that the 10 p.m. alcohol service cutoff is reasonably tailored to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our businesses. Instead, the restriction is devastating the bar industry in Utah, has caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business revenues over the past month, is harming our employees and is effectively closing many Utah businesses.”

The letter was undersigned by 18 local bar establishments.

“The absolute deciding factor was the fact that our staff is literally so disconnected from their financial stability and their emotional stability is starting to suffer as well at this point,” said Michael Repp, spokesman for the Sun Trapp, a nightclub located in downtown Salt Lake City. “We had a staff member who couldn’t even put gas in her car.”

He said the bar owners want the alcohol restrictions lifted or for the state to develop a financial stimulus package using the Utah Rainy Day Fund.

“Grants or something for us to be able to navigate (this disaster), supply our staff with their pay that they were making — not pre-COVID, but pre-mandate — because they were at least getting by,” he said. “(They need) something to compensate them for this time because they’ve not even been able to apply for unemployment under reduction of force, so it’s been a nightmare for them.”

Repp said the business has cut over half its staff.

“It is a heart-wrenching conversation to have to say that you can no longer supply hours right now,” he said. “Thank goodness some of our staff had secondary jobs where they could get more hours. However, some of them do not and those are the ones that we’re extremely concerned for because they don’t have rent money, they don’t have food money, they don’t have car money.  It becomes one of the most heart-wrenching situations.”