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St. Louis County COVID Rules Cause Tensions For Restaurants Along Borders

1207kdrake_delmarloop2
Kayla Drake
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Aboud El Hamid assembled Ranoush's outdoor patio using his indoor dining furniture. Earlier in the year, University City set up concrete barriers on Delmar Boulevard so restaurants in the Loop could have more outdoor seating.

A vibrant string of restaurants lends the Delmar Loop the feel of a lively, unified entertainment district, but local governments have split the iconic stretch in two with disjointed approaches to managing the pandemic.

The mile-long district is about evenly divided between St. Louis County, which banned indoor dining three weeks ago, and St. Louis, where restaurant and bar patrons can still dine inside.

The lack of a cohesive regional response could hurt area businesses, said St. Louis University economist Heather Bednarek. Business owners operating along St. Louis County borders are already feeling that pain.

Restaurants and retail stores hoping to salvage a woeful year with strong sales this holiday season now face record levels of coronavirus cases in the region and increased tensions along county borders.

Aboud Al Hamid has owned Ranoush, a Middle Eastern restaurant in University City, on the county side of the Loop for more than a decade.

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Kayla Drake
Aboud Al Hamid, owner of Ranoush, unloads french fries from his pickup truck after a grocery run on Dec. 4. If the restrictions last past January, he said he may have to consider closing.

Carryout orders are his only option to make money since colder weather has spoiled the business on his makeshift patio assembled on the sidewalk and in street parking spots. Now, he anxiously waits for the phone to ring for takeout orders.

“The Loop is a ghost town,” Al Hamid said. “Even the part of the Loop that’s open, they are not having enough business, because people thought all this area belongs to the county.”

Al Hamid said he can survive until January on carryout orders, but after that, he’s not sure.

Restaurants on the city side of the Loop also have seen a decline in business and have had trouble communicating the invisible boundaries to customers.

A couple of blocks east from Ranoush, Mission Taco Joint sits just inside the city border. But most people don’t realize that, said restaurant general manager Josh Laney.

“I'm having a large banner made saying that we're open for dine-in, just to be more visual to remind everybody that we are still open here,” he said.

For now, a hand-painted board reading “Open 4 Dine-In” rests just outside Mission Taco’s door.

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Kayla Drake
Owners of Thai Gai Yang Cafe in St. Louis posted a handmade sign to clarify that visitors could dine inside. The Delmar Loop restaurant is only about 100 feet from the city-county border.

Another handmade sign, this one in the window of Thai Gai Yang Cafe, simply states: “WE ARE CITY OF ST. LOUIS.”

Inconsistent public health, dining rules

Conflicting restrictions across county lines are problematic, said Dr. Alex Garza, who leads the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, during a press conference last month.

“I know from talking with elected officials there are feelings like, ‘We're doing everything we can, but other people are not sharing the burden,’” he said.

St. Louis County is the only county on the Missouri side of the region that has banned indoor dining. The City of St. Louis has restricted business capacities, St. Charles County has reduced bar and restaurant hours, and both Jefferson and Franklin counties have recently implemented mask mandates.

The Metro East also has a ban on indoor dining, which Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker enacted statewide on Nov. 20.

This lack of a unified regional response will hurt businesses, said Bednarek of SLU.

“You need these coordinated public health measures in order to be able to get to that recovery for the economy in the region more quickly,” she said.

At this point, Bednarek said, the best-case scenario for business owners and workers would Congress passing another relief bill for small businesses.

‘It’s horrible’

The tensions between counties are visible in more places than just the Delmar Loop. Businesses all along the St. Louis County border are feeling the slump.

The city of Fenton sits on the edge of St. Louis County and borders Jefferson County.

Poor Richard’s lands on the St. Louis County side, about two miles from Jefferson County. Sales are down 70% at the bar and grill, owner Doc Klestinske said.

He said carryout orders are like crumbs, and his restaurant is struggling to survive on them. In the three weeks since St. Louis County banned indoor dining, Klestinske said he laid off half of his staff — 15 people.

“It's horrible,” he said. “I mean, it just has in essence knocked them out of the holidays.”

The new restrictions have driven his customers over to Jefferson County, Klestinske said.

“They only have to go a mile and a half down the road and they can eat in,” he said.

Unlike last spring, businesses don’t have Paycheck Protection Program loans or stimulus checks to stay afloat, said Kate Ping, co-owner of Russell’s Cafe and Bakery. Ping operates one cafe in the same Fenton shopping plaza as Poor Richard’s and another in St. Louis.

“We have no idea how long this is going to last,” Ping said. “We're just kind of waiting each day, hoping that things will change.”

But the St. Louis County restrictions don’t have a deadline. Like Ping, many St. Louis County business owners will be holding their breath until the rules are lifted.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

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