Charleston Restaurants and Bars Unsure after Governor Eases Restrictions
Chef Chris Maher rolls out a mound of dough, then carefully feeds it into a machine, repeatedly stretching it into thin sheets for linguine.
"It definitely takes some practice getting used to," he says.
Betty Lou's Bistro
Maher is the executive chef at Betty Lou's Bistro in Charleston. He's had to practice a lot of patience this year.
An emergency order shut down bars and restaurants across the state for two months back in March to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Only take out was allowed.
Maher reopened in June several weeks after the governor gave the go ahead. Business, like his pasta, has been stretched thin ever since.
"Everything is just changing so fast," Maher says. "The food might be similar, but we run a totally different restaurant."
The bistro once employed 11 people. Now there are four, including Maher who also washes dishes. Sales are down 50 to 75 percent and federal assistance is running out.
"I mean, there are a lot of places that in just a blink of an eye are just slipping under," Maher says.
The governor has lifted capacity restrictions on indoor dining allowing full occupancy instead of 50 percent. But Maher and several restaurant owners we spoke with say right now they're unsure. They'd rather maintain social distancing than fill their dining rooms. They're still worried people could get sick.
Downtown on Meeting Street, bar manager Megan Deschaine sets up tables along the sidewalk outside Doar Bros. She's trying to safely make room for customers.
"Dining alfresco is lovely," she says.
Bars like hers are still required to close early at 11 p.m. But Deschaine is just grateful to be open at all. She lost her job seven months ago when the bar was forced to shut down.
She says they cautiously reopened in June. At the time, the city of Charleston had yet to pass an ordinance requiring people to wear masks. Deschaine says she's been frustrated by a lack of standard safety regulations.
"Measures of public health and public safety I don't think should be the burden of the bartender or server," says Deschaine. "However, that's how the cards are played."
She says masks, frequent testing and temperature checks are now a way of life, keeping customers safe and the bar open in a city that has already seen dozens of establishments fall.
On St. Philip Street, Stellas Restaurant is still doing take out. A server collects orders by phone even before the dining room opens.
Owner Steven Niketas says he tried to get back to business in May when the governor allowed restaurants and bars to do so. But he says he was greeted with a different breed of tourists, those fleeing coronavirus mandates in their own states.
"They were here specifically so they wouldn't have to do the right thing," he says.
It didn't feel safe. So, Niketas quickly closed again and did not reopen until after Labor Day He says he's busy now with locals who finally feel comfortable dining out again.
But he worries. He's already lost a neighboring restaurant of 17 years.
"The next few weeks will be very telling as people decide what they've been through," he says. "Is that enough?"
Niketas says taxes are due in January. Landlords are looking for rent. Fortunately, he owns his building.
The Mustard Seed
Over the Ravenel Bridge in Mount Pleasant, a new outdoor patio welcomes customers to the Mustard Seed. It was built during the pandemic.
Only on this Friday afternoon, it's raining. But that doesn't stop servers from running lunch orders out to cars.
"We need people to understand we do not want to shut the doors," says owner Andrea Parco.
Parco and her husband Sal are struggling to stay afloat. They've been in business 25 years and have had to dip into their retirement. Their second restaurant, Long Point Grill, has yet to reopen.
So, they focus on the Mustard Seed for now, trying to provide the hospitality they're known for. It can be challenging.
"We've had to deal with customers who are non-mask believers coming into our establishment, literally fighting with the 17- year-old hostess when she says can you please put on a mask," says Parco.
Parco insists they simply care about their customers. They don't want anyone getting sick. A manager at a nearby restaurant died after becoming infected with the coronavirus.
Nico Oyster's and Seafood
Meantime, Nico Oysters and Seafood around the corner has been in business barely three years. Yet, they're thriving.
A manager tells the staff during a pre-dinner meeting they're going to be nice and steady. The group is rolling silverware and polishing glasses to get ready.
Owner Nico Romo admits he had some warning. He saw what the pandemic did to his brother's restaurant in France about four weeks before a wave of infections spread here.
With business already slowing, he closed before the governor's order and prepared. He put together a system for online ordering, personally delivered food to local neighborhoods, and he cleverly included an item that at the time was hard to come by, toilet paper.
He says his manager laughed.
"She was like are you crazy? Toilet paper and food? Yes, this is where we are," he said.
The publicity from the toilet paper with his logo paid off, especially on social media. By the time Romo could reopen, he had already hired back his staff and was cashing in on his ample outdoor dining area.
Nico says he's learned a lot.
"I attribute to luck too," he says. "We got lucky."
Lucky, he says, the ideas he tried early caught on.