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As St. Louis County eases dining restrictions, restaurant owners still fear permanent closures


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    ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. (KMOV) — For the first time in more than six weeks, people can eat inside St. Louis County restaurants.

Monday marked a return to indoor dining, though restaurants are only allowed to fill 25 percent of their capacity. Some are allowed even fewer customers because tables must remain six feet apart.

Even with those restrictions, and a 10 p.m. curfew, restaurant owners are excited about welcoming back customers into their dining rooms.

“We’re just full of joy that we’re able to be open,” said Mike Duffy, owner of Mike Duffy’s Pub and Grill. “While I’m still having to pay 100 percent of the rent while using just 25 percent of my dining room, it’s better than being restricted to just to-go and carryout orders.”

The reopening marks only the first of several steps needed to help local eateries recover, as most owners say they don’t make a profit unless at least 75 percent of the dining room is full.

At Mike Duffy’s in Kirkwood, diners could eat inside for the first time in weeks. The establishment has an outdoor heated patio that remained open, but diners said they missed the comfort of eating inside.

The easing of restrictions also helped staff, as increased capacity meant owners were able to give more hours to workers. It’s an important aspect of business to many owners.

“I want to be able to support my employees and give them a paycheck,” Duffy said. “If you’re unable to bring on additional staff, you can at least increase the number of hours those that are working are getting.”

But some owners remain frustrated, and fear many restaurants will close permanently, even with increased indoor dining.

“We’re happy to be open and we’re thankful we get to be open, but the stuff that’s going on and the reason behind this is tyrannical,” said Duffy. “Here we have a dictator, dictating to citizens of the United States what they can and cannot do and it’s not right.”

The new restrictions also require restaurants to get the name, cell phone or email address of everyone dining in so, in the case of an outbreak, the County Health Department is able to do contact tracing.

According to the county health department, restaurants are asked to collect contact information from at least one person per party and to hold onto that information for 14 days. If it’s needed for contact tracing due to an outbreak, the information then becomes protected by HIPPA under federal law, according to St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page.

If the information is no longer needed after the 14-day period, the county asks restaurants to destroy the information. Some diners said they’re not to keen on giving out their private information.

“If things continue, I don’t know how long people will still go through all these protocols that are arbitrarily forced upon us,” said John Moore, who dined in for lunch at Mike Duffy’s on Monday afternoon. “Big brother is everywhere, and now you’re going to have big brother in the restaurants as well? So, there’s a limit as to how much we’re going to take.”

The new restrictions also require guests to wear a face mask anytime a server or staff is at the table. Previously, customers were only required to wear their masks upon entering, exiting and going to the bathroom.

Ben Brown, owner of Satchmo’s Bar and Grill in Chesterfield, has been a local leader in the fight for transparency and accountability at the county level. In November, hours after hosting a press conference outside his restaurant with several Missouri legislators, Brown said county health department workers suspended his license, forcing him to close.

After two weeks of back and forth, he was able to resume carry-out and to-go orders, but only after losing thousands of dollars of inventory and lost profits.

“I have to credit my wife, she came up with an idea to donate meals to local healthcare workers at St. Luke’s and at the Chesterfield Police Department so the inventory didn’t go to waste,” Brown said.

Further, he’s fearful county restaurants will still have to fight to survive, after some people flocked to neighboring St. Louis City and St. Charles County to grab a bite to eat indoors recently.

“With losing all ability to serve dine in guests for six weeks, while having neighbor counties were restaurants are booming, it’s just…we lost market share and we’re going to have to get back,” he said. “I think a lot of people who got used to dining out in places like St. Charles and other neighboring counties might still choose to go to places that are a little less restrictive.”

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