Bar and restaurant owners in McLean County are trying to come up with new and creative ways to attract customers without indoor dining as new restrictions take effect Wednesday because of rising COVID-19 testing positivity rates in the central Illinois region that includes Bloomington-Normal.
Peter Connolly co-owns Maggie Miley's, an Irish Pub in Uptown Normal. He said business was finally starting to recover from the early stages of the pandemic when restaurants could only offer curbside or delivery service. Maggie Miley's doesn't deliver, but he's considering adding that now.
Connolly said nearly two-thirds of his dine-in business is alcohol that he loses with curbside service. He said he's not sure how many locally-owned restaurants will be able to get by.
“If it’s a week or two maybe we’ll be fine, but if it’s longer than that, depending on how long, I don’t know about ourselves or how many other small, independent restaurant owners are going to be able to survive," he said.
Connolly said Maggie Miley’s reduced staff from a pre-pandemic level of 48 to 42 when indoor dining was restored--while staffing was temporarily reduced as much as 70% during the spring.
He said the restaurant has limited outdoor seating that likely won't be useful for long. He doesn’t have outdoor heaters.
Nearly half of the sales at the Mystic Kitchen and Tasting Room in downtown Bloomington come from alcohol. When the wine bar had to shut down in the spring, co-owner Terrie Vanderlugt said they started curbside service for wine and expanded from there.
“You are writing a game plan on Monday and you are having to readjust it on Friday,” Vanderlugt explained. “Initially, our plan was to just focus on the wine and then there was an opportunity to have cocktail kits, so we moved to that as well.”
Curbside meals came later, along with 18 dining tables outside-more than are inside.
“Between the patio and the curbside pickup, things went incredibly well, all things being equal, during the shutdown,” she said.
Vanderlugt said she and co-owner Chelsea Heffernan decided outdoor heaters weren't worth the investment. Mystic instead hopes to attract more customers virtually. Recently, the wine bar held its first virtual wine tasting and may soon do the same for cocktails.
The COVID shutdowns haven't been all bad for some dining establishments.
Dave Heidemann, who owns Gameday Grill in Downs, said he attracted a lot of new customers after the pandemic began.
“It actually expanded our customer base because people just wanted to get out of the house and take a drive to some place they haven’t been to,” said Heidemann, adding some of those visitors have become regulars.
Even though sales were still 20% lower than usual, Heidemann said the bar has maintained strong beer sales. It sells 64-ounce growlers of draft beer curbside.
He figures as long as the restrictions don't last as long this time, they will do fine with close to full staffing.
“I don’t expect this to be that long as compared to the last one,” Heidemann said.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, indoor dining will be restored once the region’s COVID testing positivity rate falls below 6.5% for three consecutive days. If the rate remains above 8% for the next 14 days, the state may impose additional restrictions. The regions positivity rate on Monday was 9.7%.
The mitigations also limit gatherings to 25 people or 25% capacity (schools and polling sites are excluded), but bars and restaurants are the prime targets of the new restrictions.
That angers Connolly, who said those businesses are being unfairly blamed for the coronavirus spread.
“A lot of restaurant owners and bar owners and managers that I’ve talked to are irked at the fact that they are blaming the (COVID) spikes on the bar and restaurant scene,” he said. “A lot of us--and I would say a majority of us--did follow the guidelines. We had a lot of customers compliment us on following the guidelines.”
Recently, Gov. JB Pritzker cited bars and restaurants as the second-leading cause of coronavirus spread, based on contact tracing data.
Vandelugt said she understands the reason for the restrictions, but hopes they won’t be necessary long term.
“Our focus from day one was the health and safety of our staff, our guests and being part of getting the community through to the other side,” she said. “I think we are all in this together and whatever we can do to get to the better place is what we will continue to do.”
Mystic temporarily shut down indoor dining on its own over the summer because they said too many customers weren't wearing masks.
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