Businesses Along St. Louis County’s Borders Fear New Limits Will Drive Customers Away
New rules mandating mask use and limiting how businesses can operate in St. Louis County on Tuesday imposed divisions between communities that otherwise exist seamlessly along the county's borders.
Martial arts students wore masks as they pounded heavy bags at Xtreme Krav Maga in Fenton along the southern edge of St. Louis County. A short drive down Route 30 at Anytime Fitness in High Ridge in Jefferson County, unmasked people rotated through exercise machines.
The restrictions in St. Louis County aim to slow soaring numbers of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. They include limiting capacity in businesses and religious institutions to 25% and a ban on indoor dining. Meanwhile, there are no mask mandates or capacity restrictions on business in neighboring Jefferson, Franklin and St. Charles counties.
Some business owners have said the differing approaches between counties has made it hard for their business to stay afloat, prompting dozens to threaten to sue St. Louis County Executive Sam Page.
Xtreme Krav Maga owner Steve Sulze crosses the border from his home in Jefferson County to his gym in Fenton every day. Before the pandemic, Sulze’s self-defense gym had 300 members. Around 100 people have canceled or frozen memberships since March.
Some customers wanted to avoid potential exposures, and others preferred to work out at gyms in counties with fewer restrictions, Sulze said.
More have canceled memberships since Friday, when St. Louis County announced the new rules that now require people to wear masks in his gym to practice side kicks and punches, Sulze said.
“It’s frustrating that I have no control over why my business is failing,” he said, adding that he thinks wearing masks should be a personal choice. “That's kind of frustrating that we can go literally half a mile down the road and have our freedoms back. You know, that just doesn't sit well.”
Still, Sulze says he will comply with all of St. Louis County’s restrictions because he wants to stay open.
Differing restrictions are also causing confusion and headaches for businesses along the border of St. Louis and St. Louis County. The city also requires masks to be worn in businesses and religious institutions, but unlike the county, St. Louis still permits restaurants and bars to offer indoor dining.
The Delmar Loop entertainment district is nearly split in half between those rules. Mission Taco Joint sits on the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Eastgate Avenue, the last intersection east of the city-county border.
Customers have been calling to ask if the restaurant’s location in the Loop still has indoor dining, general manager Josh Laney said.
Employees at the restaurant are concerned about losing potential customers because the new rules may lead people to assume all restaurants in the Loop are closed for dining, Laney said. Managers have placed signs in windows to dispel that.
Laney said if his dining room was closed, he would have to consider making layoffs.
Just over 1,000 feet west of the city-county line, Aboud Al Hamid, owner of Ranoush, said he is trying to avoid laying off staff.
“They have bills, they have mortgage or rent, they have car payments,” he said. “You cannot let these people down.”
Al Hamid said this is the first time in 12 years of operating his restaurant specializing in Syrian fare that he is unsure of the path forward. When he heard the news of the ban on indoor dining, he said he felt dizzy.
“Since the pandemic, there is no profit,” he said. “You cannot even think about it. Like what you’re gonna think about is just you paying your bills.”
Al Hamid said he dreads watching his neighbors across the city-county line open their indoor dining rooms, while his stays closed. He said he wishes St. Louis County would have allowed restaurants to operate dining rooms at 25% capacity.
Two locations, two counties, two sets of rules
Russell’s Cafe and Bakery has one location off Macklind Avenue in St. Louis and another in Fenton.
Co-owner Kate Ping said it’s hard to compete with other restaurants when people can cross county lines to restaurants that do offer indoor dining.
The new St. Louis County restrictions will cut the Fenton bakery’s profits in half and leave it to rely on carryout orders, Ping said. And unlike the lockdown measures in spring, restaurants won’t be receiving assistance from the government.
Ping plans to add online ordering for Thanksgiving, one of the busiest holidays for the bakery. But still, she worries about staying afloat. She already had to close a location in Chesterfield this summer.
”We learned in March that we just had to figure it out as we went,” Ping said.
County borders may affect which businesses survive and which don’t. On Tuesday, 2½ miles away from Russell’s in Fenton, unmasked customers filled tables at Murphy’s Diner for lunch just across the border in Jefferson County.
Kim McDonald is a St. Louis County resident who works in Fenton and frequently dines out. She said the new restrictions unfairly punish St. Louis County restaurants.
“Human beings are going to do what they want to do,” she said. “They're going to go to the city to eat out. They're going to go to Jefferson County to eat out, as we will do.”
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