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Some Alabama restaurants struggle with Covid-19 more than last year

By Brendan Kirby

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    MOBILE, Alabama (WALA) — With many restaurants still short on staff, the COVID-19 resurgence could not have come at a worse time.

Some even have had to shut their doors temporarily. Popular tourist destination LuLu’s Gulf Shores on the Intracoastal Waterway on Monday became the latest to be sidelined. Neighborhood favorite Big Time Diner on Cottage Hill Road in Mobile has been closed since July 13 because of an outbreak.

“Well, here we go again,” LuLu’s owner Lucy Buffett wrote in a Facebook post. “COVID infections are racing among our staff to the point that we did do not have enough team members to operate today; that is the simple truth.”

Buffett announced she also had to temporarily close her LuLu’s restaurant in Destin. She wrote that she hopes to reopen both establishments next Monday.

Robert Momberger, who has worked for Big Time Diner for 19 years and owned it for the last two, told FOX10 News that a dozen of his employees are down with the virus. He said that includes, himself – he’s getting over COVID and battling pneumonia.

“We had a number of people test positive,” he said. “So we thought, to protect the rest of the employees and the customers, we needed to shut it down.”

Momberger sai last year’s struggles with the pandemic were nothing compared to the current situation.

“We limited our staff, at times, but we didn’t have to close down,” he said. “So the closing down is financially the crushing part of what’s happening now.”

The Mobile County Health Department’s top epidemiologist, Rendi Murphree, encouraged business owners during her daily briefing Monday to ask employees and customers to wear masks and get vaccinated.

“Restaurants are not immune to outbreaks among staff, and outbreaks among patrons,” she said.

But Murphree added that they are far from alone.

“We do hear about clusters of illness in, you know – following parties, events, church, schools, camps, you name it,” she said. “It’s happening everywhere.”

The current wave comes at a precarious time for restaurants. According to the National Restaurant Association, by last December, 110,000 establishments had closed, permanently or temporarily. And sales at the end of the year were $240 billion below pre-pandemic projections.

In addition, the trade group reported that the industry finished 2020 2.5 million jobs below its pre-pandemic level. Some 8 million employees got laid of or furloughed. That disruption has contributed to a labor shortage that has many restaurants operating short-staffed.

“A lot of people have gotten out of the business,” Momberger said. “So it’s definitely been hard to find good employees.”

Momberger said he has fixed costs that do not going away when the restaurant is not operating. On Sunday, he said, he had to throw away food that had passed its expiration date. The worker shortage has driven up labor costs, but that is not the only increased expense, he said.

“Restaurants are all aware, we’re forced to pay more,” he said. “And also, the food costs have gone up significantly. Chicken’s up 100 percent, and meat and seafood’s up at least 25. So, all our costs are up.”

Momberger said he is hoping to reopen on Thursday for lunch only and have a full schedule next week. He said he is encouraging employees to get vaccinated but is unsure whether he could legally require it.

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