It’s Not Easy, But Some Metro East Restaurants Are Still Following COVID Rules
Owners of Metro East restaurants that are following state COVID-19 rules are starting to feel like they’re in the minority.
Dozens of other restaurants are inviting customers to eat inside, despite a ban on indoor dining ordered by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Oct. 28 to combat the rising number of coronavirus cases in the region. Violators could be issued misdemeanor tickets, but so far, county state’s attorneys have declined to prosecute.
Jeff Truitt, CEO of a St. Louis company that operates six TGI Fridays franchises, including the one in Fairview Heights, has noticed that several of his competitors along Interstate 64 have been packing in crowds this fall.
“They’re flaunting it, and that’s just not right,” he said. “It shouldn’t be allowed to happen.”
Truitt said TGI Fridays in Fairview Heights is following COVID-19 rules by serving customers in a tent, on a patio or at tables within 8 feet of a large accordion-style door that can be opened to create an open-air atmosphere, even though he personally thinks a small tent is less safe than a large dining room with socially-distanced tables.
Truitt said most restaurants along the interstate that are ignoring the rules are part of small, regional chains that believe they can continue to operate under the radar screen.
“None of your national chains are going to break the law,” he said. “... We’re not going to risk being put on TV or the front page of your newspaper by deliberately doing something that we know is wrong. But these local-regionals, they feel like, ‘What’s the big deal? We’re just here in St. Louis. Who do I have to answer to?’”
Small restaurants make choices
A growing number of small, independently-owned restaurants in the Metro East also are keeping their dining rooms open in violation of the state ban.
Some owners feel that COVID-19 rules are inconsistent by allowing Walmart and other large discount stores to operate with seemingly few restrictions. Illinois Department of Public Health officials argue that restaurants are different because people can’t wear masks while eating and that research backs up their decision-making.
Other restaurant owners worry that they will lose their businesses and livelihoods if they don’t let customers eat inside now that it’s getting too cold to sit outside.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused Ravanelli’s Restaurant locations in Granite City and Collinsville to lose money and lay off valued employees, but the family-owned business will follow the rules and stay closed to indoor dining until the ban is lifted, according to Cindy Wilson, general manager of the Collinsville location.
“If you have a liquor license and you open up, they can take your liquor license from you,” she said. “Well, we have remodeled and renovated, and we have a bar now, so we definitely don’t want to do anything that’s going to jeopardize that.”
Wilson said she knows that some restaurants have hired lawyers to fight tickets issued by Illinois State Police, and some insist it’s unlikely that liquor licenses would be revoked, but Ravanelli’s isn’t taking any changes.
Wilson said it was hard for the restaurant, which specializes in home-cooked meals, to be closed on the traditionally busy holidays of Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, when earlier coronavirus-related bans were in effect. It’s now taking orders for turkey dinners for individuals and parties of 10 or 20 on Thanksgiving.
“We’ve been very blessed here,” Wilson said. “People have really come and used our (carryout) services, and it’s really helped out.”
‘Barbecue experts, not virologists'
Dave and Meggan Sandusky, who own BEAST Craft BBQ in Belleville, are keeping their dining room closed for now, sticking with carryouts and working to build a better delivery system.
Dave Sandusky said he doesn’t like the covonavirus-related restrictions, which have caused him to suffer “massive losses” this year, and he doesn’t know if all of Pritzker’s actions have been proper, but he’s trying to leave decision-making up to the health experts until more information becomes available.
“We’re barbecue experts, not virologists,” he said.
Sandusky said he isn’t judging other restaurant owners for taking different paths because he understands that many are worried about paying their bills and feeding their families. He feels lucky that he and his wife haven’t yet reached a “breaking point,” but he isn’t sure that won’t happen eventually.
The Sanduskys also own BEAST Butcher & Block in St. Louis, whose dining room remains open, as allowed under St. Louis guidelines. Dave Sandusky said they have to be flexible and adapt to the rules of jurisdictions in which they operate.
Sandusky said he understands the seriousness of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, and he tries to be careful in weighing his options.
“It’s not just about me,” he said. “I have 75 families that depend on me to make proper decisions to fund their households, so I don’t take those decisions lightly at all. These (employees) depend on me as much as my wife and kids do. ... I have to think about their health and safety. I have to think about the public’s health and safety.”
The Sanduskys are planning to open a third location in Columbia soon. It might join the local restaurant scene with only carryouts and delivery.
Stage is dark at Stagger Inn
Another restaurant that has remained closed to indoor service during coronavirus-related bans this year is Stagger Inn Again in Edwardsville, which also is known for its live music and open-mic sessions at night.
Employee Bri Meyer said the owners are trying to be responsible.
“We are following the governor’s guidelines, and we are looking out for the health and safety of our customers, as well as our employees,” she said.
Stagger Inn Again continues to offer a full menu and daily specials for people who want to pick-up food in back, eat at tables on the sidewalk in front or place orders for delivery.
Illinois restaurants have been on a bit of a roller coaster, closing March 17 as part of a state shutdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Many reopened for outdoor dining on May 29 and indoor dining on June 26 under Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan to restart the economy.
The governor banned indoor dining again on Sept. 2 in Region 4, which consists of St. Clair, Madison, Bond, Clinton, Monroe, Randolph and Washington counties. That was one of several “mitigation” restrictions imposed after the region’s seven-day, rolling average positivity rate on coronavirus tests hit 10.5%, well past the 8% threshold.
The rate later dropped, prompting Pritzker to lift the ban on Oct. 9, only to reimpose it on Oct. 28. But the region’s positivity rate has steadily increased since then and now stands at 16.1%, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Four Metro East restaurants have made headlines by getting tickets from the Illinois State Police for violating COVID-19 restrictions — Fast Eddie’s Bon-Air in Alton, The Fainting Goat locations in Pocahontas and Breese and Washy’s Saloon in Waterloo. None have paid fines because county state’s attorneys declined to prosecute.
This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.