GA restaurants face uncertainty, challenges with chance to reopen

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Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is lifting restrictions and allowing certain non-essential businesses to reopen, saying that his shelter-in-place order and social distancing measures are starting to slow the coronavirus outbreak.

The governor’s order will allow gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, body art studios, barbers, cosmetologists, hair designers, nail care artists, estheticians and massage therapists to reopen Friday, April 24 if they comply with social distancing requirements and other safety standards.

Bars, nightclubs, amusement parks and live performance venues will remain closed under the order. 

Restaurants, theaters and private social clubs will be allowed to reopen on Monday, April 27 if they comply with specific social distancing and sanitation mandates. The governor’s office is expected to release more guidelines in the next few days. 

But getting business back to normal for restaurants could prove especially challenging.

“Just because the government says ‘this is allowed’, when will customers start feeling comfortable coming back to (populated) areas,” questioned restaurant owner George Claussen.

Claussen is a partner in several area restaurants and bars, including both Southbound Smokehouse locations. The original location on Central Avenue, and a much larger, two-story location attached to SRP Park in North Augusta, South Carolina, home of the Augusta GreenJackets minor league baseball team.

The two-story Southbound Smokehouse location attached to SRP Park in North Augusta, South Carolina, home of the Augusta GreenJackets minor league baseball team.

The governor’s office is expected to limit the number of customers a restaurant would be allowed to have on location at one time. Claussen says being open with fewer tables available might work for his one of his BBQ restaurants, but it might not be feasible for others operators.

“Being in the barbecue business, we don’t have to run as full as most of the restaurants, especially your fine dinings,” said Claussen. “The only way those guys can even survive is when they’re completely at capacity three nights a week,” he added.

“Well if you take out every other table, then that affects everybody,” said Claussen.

Claussen also says many big chain restaurants, and places like his location at SRP Park, need lots of turnover and big crowds to turn a a profit. “We look at that a lot with Southbound No. 2, it’s multi-floors, it’s almost 6,000 square feet. Unless you have a couple hundred people in there, it’s not worth opening,” said Claussen.

He and other restaurateurs also wonder how sustainable the current reopening plan is.

“You know, I think our big concern is, eight weeks from now, if they’ve even gotten the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money, once that dries up, are you going to have to just lay-off half your staff again,” Claussen pointed out.

Claussen says whether it is big event like concerts, or simply getting customers back into restaurants, the hospitality industry is one of many facing a long road to recovery.

“We’re fighting two battles. We’re fighting when the government is going to say it’s OK. And we’re fighting when the general public is going to feel it’s OK. So, it’s two opposing forces right now, and the best thing about all of this is we’re (restaurants) in this together,” said Claussen.

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