‘Terrible timing’: COVID surge forces restaurants to temporarily close

Safety protocols, lack of employees mean cases among staff impact holiday sales
211220 Atlanta, Ga: Ticonderoga Club co-owner Paul Calvert mixes and fills bottles for to-go cocktails made to order from the walk-up window at the Club during a closure due to two staff members testing positive for COVID-19.  (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

211220 Atlanta, Ga: Ticonderoga Club co-owner Paul Calvert mixes and fills bottles for to-go cocktails made to order from the walk-up window at the Club during a closure due to two staff members testing positive for COVID-19. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Over the weekend, nearly two dozen metro Atlanta restaurants temporarily closed due to positive COVID-19 cases among staff.

Supremo Taco, Bread and Butterfly, 8Arm and Ticonderoga Club were among the dining establishments that abruptly announced they would be closed during what is typically one of the busiest periods for restaurants.

Supporters of Local Three received an email midday Saturday from chef-partner Chris Hall notifying them that the fine-dining restaurant in Vinings would not open that evening.

“This morning we learned that several team members have tested positive for COVID-19. In light of this, we have chosen to close the restaurant so that all of our employees may be tested and extensive cleaning and sanitization measures may be implemented. Pending the results of the tests, we plan to reopen Tuesday,” Hall wrote. “We apologize for any inconvenience, but caution is the right path for everyone at this time.”

“It’s terrible timing,” Hall told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. “Guests who had a Christmas party set up for months, they are disappointed. We’re disappointed. This was one of the biggest weekends of the year.” According to Hall, the restaurant was completely booked with reservations both Saturday and Sunday.

Monday morning, Hall was in discussions with the company’s director of operations as they awaited the remainder of staff test results to make decisions about when to reopen.

211220 Atlanta, Ga: Ticonderoga Club co-owner Greg Best (left) makes a transaction with longtime customer Gardner Rordam and son Graham (6), both of Atlanta, at the walk-up window at the Club at Krog Street Market Monday 12/20/21 afternoon. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

icon to expand image

Credit: Chris Hunt

Dining déjà vu

“Omicron has raced in and leveled half the restaurants in the city over the course of 72 hours,” said Paul Calvert of Ticonderoga Club.

He made the decision with business partner Greg Best to keep doors locked on Saturday at his popular Krog Street Market watering hole after two positive COVID-19 tests within a fully vaccinated staff of 13. “Ticonderoga Club has a very small staff. Losing one or two employees basically means closing,” he said. He hoped to reopen for dinner service on Tuesday.

Ticonderoga Club has been closed on Sundays throughout the pandemic due to the labor shortage that continues to plague the service industry, but it banks on brisk Monday business, he said. And the establishment is still “trying to recover from two years of loss,” he said.

Since he and Best wouldn’t be able to stir or shake cocktails Monday night, the pair decided to hold a last-minute holiday market Monday afternoon in the restaurant’s takeout area and sell everything from merchandise and gift cards to wine and bottled cocktails, reminiscent of the early pandemic days when restaurants operated as general stores.

For some restaurant operators, the decision to temporarily close due to positive coronavirus cases among staff is also déjà vu all over again.

Hall stated that Local Three briefly closed earlier this year after enough positive cases among staff warranted that decision. “We had set a bar of what we thought was an isolated case versus what we think was an issue. Where you draw that line is the interesting thing.”

“If you don’t do your part, it’s going to get crazy,” said Nhan Le, whose staff at 8Arm and Supremo Taco are fully vaccinated. “You don’t want to be an incubator for this thing. It’s been such a tough year making calls as to what’s right and what’s wrong.”

211220 Atlanta, Ga: Ticonderoga Club co-owner Greg Best (at window) converses with a walk-up customer at the Club's Krog Street Market.  (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Chris Hunt

icon to expand image

Credit: Chris Hunt

Strategies for safety

This marks the first time that Lazy Betty chef-partners Ron Hsu and Aaron Phillips have had to close the restaurant due to a COVID-19 case since reopening the dining room in June 2020. The partners are taking steps to avoid such a shutdown in the future by keeping an inventory of COVID-19 test kits at the restaurant to test employees daily before they can work.

“This spurred us to be more proactive and figure out a safe way to continue and not close if we don’t have to,” said Hsu, who lamented the combined Saturday-Sunday loss of 160 diners, each of whom would have paid between $135 and $175 for the Lazy Betty tasting menu, plus $90-$120 for wine pairings. “It’s a significant chunk of change,” he said.

On the heels of announcing the permanent closure of Proof Bakeshop last week, Billy Allin closed his Inman Park restaurant Bread and Butterfly on Sunday after a vaccinated employee tested positive for COVID-19.

Allin said he plans to talk to owners of other small independent restaurants on ways they can stay consistent with their COVID-19 closure protocols as cases tick up. He said, “I just don’t see it as a sustainable business model to close every time someone tests positive. We’re going to have to live with it, and how do we continue to do business knowing we can’t close down every few days.”

He noted that many restaurants share employees, so ensuring safety precautions are taken and testing is done regularly is important.

Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer sympathized with the decisions that restaurant owners face as the city braces for the fast-spreading omicron variant.

“People are put in a tough place right now. They are trying to keep their businesses afloat. These restaurateurs are putting their employees and guests first,” she said.

Bremer stated that restaurant operators can request that the GRA coordinate with the Georgia Department of Public Health to schedule on-site visits to vaccinate staff members. In addition, she encouraged people to support the embattled restaurant industry by ordering holiday takeout meals and purchasing gift cards.

“We are trying so hard to keep our people healthy,” said Calvert. In late October, Ticonderoga Club began adding a 4% fee to all guest transactions to help cover health, dental and optical insurance for all of Ticonderoga Club’s full-time employees. “So far, we’ve had zero negative feedback from guests,” he said.

Customer understanding is what Hall hopes for in this latest round of tough management decisions. “None of us are asking for sympathy,” he said. “Just an understanding that we don’t want to disappoint you by canceling your Christmas party, but we have to. We are doing the best we can.”

Does omicron surge have you rethinking holiday plans?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas could be impacted by another coronavirus surge. We want to hear from you. Has the omicron surge caused you to reschedule holiday plans, rethink large gatherings or consider worshipping virtually on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Please contact reporter Drew Kann at drew.kann@ajc.com.