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Glass half full: Bar, restaurants ‘hanging on’ as they reopen at half capacity

Kentucky restaurants and bars were allowed to double their capacity last week, but they’re still at half the customers they had before they were closed in March because of the coronavirus.

Some Nicholasville restaurant managers say they are getting by or even prospering. Others wonder how long they can sustain their business under the restrictions.

Between 5 and 6 p.m. last Wednesday, the large open-air dining section in front of Drake’s in Brannon Crossing was humming.

There is no limit on the number of customers who can be seated outside as long as tables are spaced six feet apart and other rules apply. 

There were also several customers inside in the bar area who were protected by high PlexiGlas barriers between booths.

“We’ve been doing great,” Brady Wilson, the kitchen manager, said. “Every day is busy nonstop.”

“Our carryout program has been crazy busy,” he mentioned.

The restaurant, part of a group owned by local businessmen, serves a variety of food including steaks, salmon and sushi, and has 32 kinds of craft beer on tap.

Wilson said “it’s been a big adjustment” to have to learn and follow the changing rules, “but we’ve adapted.”

Customers can’t sit at the bar, must wear a mask except when seated, and must remain seated except to go to the restroom.

But Wilson believes those rules are necessary for the health of the employees and customers.

“I respect all the decisions the governor has made,” he said, speaking for himself personally. 

“My mom and grandpa and grandma were all diagnosed with COVID-19, and my grandpa just passed away from it,” he mentioned.

The restaurant takes the highly contagious respiratory disease seriously.

“We follow all the rules,” he said.

Wilson said they haven’t had many problems. A few customers have walked back to their cars when told they had to wear masks, but they haven’t raised a ruckus, he said.

“Everybody has been very compliant,” Wilson said. “It’s been a way better experience than many of the places you’ve seen on the news.”

At The Home Stretch, a new sports bar and grill on North Main Street near U.S. 27, COVID-19 restrictions delayed the opening for six months. Manager Jared Williams said it opened at 25 percent capacity in mid-June.

Late Friday afternoon, there were more servers than customers.

“It seems that it’s been a little bit slower with the new regulations,” he said, but, “I think we’re exceeding our expectations as of right now.”

Williams thinks business will increase when more people know they’re open.

He said they have thought about opening an outdoor seating area and having games outside.

Restaurants often operate on razor-thin margins and most of those that aren’t fast food places say they need alcohol to attract customers and make money.

Williams guessed that 85 percent of his sales are from food and 15 percent from alcohol. And it isn’t expensive food; it’s pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken parmigiana, salads and other pub food.

The restaurant has a large bar, but since no one can be seated at it, they have spaced two-seat pub tables out around it to give customers a “bar atmosphere” while maintaining social distance.

“We hope … we can get back to normal soon,” he said.

Joe’s Cock & Bull is a little downtown bar on Maple Street with unusual decor, including carved mermaids, an old-fashioned cigarette machine and a bar with a glass top covering rows of pennies. Denny Ford, the owner, reopened Tuesday night and had to close at 10 p.m. per the governor’s rules.

“It wasn’t a money-making crowd,” he said.

But for him, the bar is “more of a hobby than an occupation.”

“I don’t owe anybody anything,” the retired businessman said. “If that weren’t the case, I’d be sweating bullets because running these things ain’t cheap.”

Ford doesn’t serve food. He keeps it simple. It’s a gathering place for “regulars.”

“There’s more money in alcohol than there is in anything else, and it’s easier to do,” he said.

Ford said he was following the guidelines by allowing seating “at every other table,” but the regulations have “no bite” to them.

“Who’s going to be the bad guy to come in here and tell you you’re doing it wrong?” he asked. “They put it all on the Health Department, but they weren’t hired to do that, and the cops don’t want it.” Politicians make the rules, but it’s left to the business owners to enforce them.

“It’s not really working,” he said.

Charlie Hensley said he can’t understand the reasoning behind some of the rules that hinder business, such as not being allowed to serve food or beverages after 10 p.m. 

How is someone more likely to get the virus after 10 than at 3 p.m.? he wondered.

Hensley owns two restaurants and bars in downtown Nicholasville — Euro Wine and Tapas Bar, which remains closed, and The Public Well, which has reopened at limited capacity.

Hensley said The Public Well can now reopen with seating for 24 people inside and as many as he can keep a six-foot distance between outside, but he can only seat 12 at Euro, and he can’t afford to open it for that few people.

“It’s not sustainable,” he said. “It’s going to take a third of my income, if not half.”

The hours between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. are the busiest hours for bars, he said.

So what’s the answer to balancing public health concerns and profit?

“The first thing is to treat people like adults,” he said. “If you don’t feel well, stay home. If you don’t know somebody, don’t hug them” or sit with them, he said.

Hensley said he insists his customers follow the rules, because if they don’t, the Health Department can shut his restaurant down, and he isn’t about to lose his liquor license. If someone says they can’t wear a mask because of a medical condition, he said, he wants to see a note from their doctor. 

Like Ford, Hensley is fortunate in that he owns his property and has some money to wait it out until he can open both bars at full capacity.

“We are just hanging on the best we can,” he said. “This is not going to last forever.”

About Randy Patrick

Randy Patrick is a reporter for Bluegrass Newsmedia, which includes The Jessamine Journal. He may be reached at 859-759-0015 or by email at randy.patrick@bluegrassnewsmedia.com.

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