With Shutdown on Horizon, Restaurateurs Wonder if They’ll Survive

By Guy D’Astolfo and Jeremy Lydic
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Local restaurant and banquet hall operators were not surprised at Gov. Mike DeWine’s threat to close their businesses if the coronavirus surge doesn’t slow, but many say they’re not to blame.

In a televised address Wednesday night, the governor issued orders stepping up mask enforcement at businesses and threatened to close bars, restaurants and fitness centers if the infection rate isn’t contained in a week. He also implored residents to avoid large public gatherings.

Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in Ohio has increased by more than 114%, reaching an all-time high Thursday of 7,101.

Joe Rzonsa, owner of Blue Wolf Tavern in Boardman and Blue Wolf Events at The Maronite Center in Youngstown, said DeWine’s announcement was expected, but he questions its efficacy.

“I think it’s a bad move,” Rzonsa said. “I don’t think that quarantining is going to do anything. I don’t think that shutting down businesses is going to do anything.”

Patrick Howlett, co-owner of the Coaches Burger Bar chain, said shutting down restaurants and bars is counterproductive.

“I think it makes it worse,” Howlett said, “because closing bars at 10 p.m. causes more parties at homes, where people are even closer together.”

Restaurants “are doing a fantastic job,” Howlett said. “You’re more spread out in a restaurant than at home. We are seating people at every other table, and have dividers up, so you’re no closer [to another person] than you’d be at a carryout place or at Walmart.”

Howlett sees the governor’s address as an advance notice of a certain shutdown.

“There will be no change [in the infection rate] in a week, no matter how hard we try,” he said.

With the holiday season coming up – the most lucrative time of year for the industry – a shutdown would be disastrous, Howlett said.

“We might be shut down until April,” he said. “We would be in limbo. There would be no end in sight. Are we supposed to keep paying employees to try to hold on to them?”

On Thursday, DeWine responded to harsh feedback he received after his address, saying any decision his administration makes regarding restaurants, bars and gyms will be guided by insights from hospitals and health-care leaders in the state. While the state is seeing spread everywhere – particularly with private and public gatherings and events, such as weddings and funerals – he said restaurants, bars and fitness centers are of concern right now because the colder weather will be forcing more people indoors. 

“It makes any inside activity more difficult, more dangerous potentially,” DeWine continued. “It’s not their fault, but it makes it more dangerous and more dicey.”

Blue Wolf’s Rzonsa said shutting businesses down now could create a situation where the cure is worse than the virus. While he gave decision-makers the benefit of the doubt during the spring shutdown order, “this time, I’m not so sure,” he said. A key difference between then and now is there is currently no talk of financial assistance for businesses that are forced to close, whether at the state or federal level, he said.

“I don’t know how much longer we can weather another shutdown,” Rzonsa said. “I do know there are a lot of places out there that are just barely hanging on.”

His concern is for the smaller businesses, he said, “and the Mahoning Valley is full of them.” Had something like the pandemic happened during his first year or two in business, “it would have undone us for sure.”

That’s not to say things haven’t been challenging for the long-standing restaurant. When DeWine first issued a shutdown order in March, Blue Wolf had to put 55 of its 70 employees on standby. During the three months things were closed, the 200-seat restaurant “transitioned well” to takeout-only service, making up about 75% of its business, he said.

In a usual year, the time between Thanksgiving week and the week of New Year’s Day accounts for about 35% of Blue Wolf’s annual business. “This year, I can’t see that happening. Even if things stay just as they are right now,” he said.

The 10 p.m. bar curfew will impact that business as well, as the holidays usually bring plenty of bar traffic with family and work parties and people coming in from out of town, he said. As the restaurant moves into slower months, not having that cash reserve from holiday business on hand “most likely will mean I will need to cut some payroll,” he said.

The Blue Wolf Events banquet center is another story, he said. For months, the 22,000-square-foot center has been limited to parties of 300.

“We’re about $1 million behind in that business this year,” he said.

To help curb concerns about the virus, Blue Wolf Events doubled its staff so each station on a buffet line was manned by an employee wearing a mask and gloves, preventing guests from having to touch the same serving utensils, he said. 

Those efforts increased labor costs by 35% for banquets and catering, while revenue is down 70%, he said. The event center got some assistance through an SBA loan, Rzonsa said, which will eventually have to be repaid.

Since the governor’s announcement Wednesday, some of the restaurateurs Rzonsa has spoken to said they are preparing to legally fight another closure, he said. Individuals are looking to “lawyer up,” he said, because of concerns that if they are required to close again, they won’t survive and be able to reopen.

Long-time restaurateur and caterer John Marino said DeWine should have issued the threat a month ago because “there is no way we can stop a snowball effect [rise in infections] in one week.”

Marino owns Mojo’s Pub and Grill, Marino’s Italian Café and Tavola Catering and Banquet Center, all in Austintown. He said he expects one of three things within two weeks: a shutdown, an end to alcohol sales or a closing time moved up to 8 p.m. 

For the first time since the spring shutdown, Marino this week did not place an order with his beer supplier.

He wasn’t alone. “[A sales rep at his distributor] just called me and said ‘I’m assuming you have no order this week. I have 50 accounts and not one order,’ ” Marino said.

John Barker, president of the Ohio Restaurant Association, took a strong stance against a potential shutdown, pinning the blame on private gatherings and warning about the economic damage another shutdown would bring.

“Like everyone, we are concerned about the recent surge in COVID-19 cases,” he said in a statement.

“We are also deeply concerned for the 58% of Ohio restaurants that have indicated they may close their doors permanently if they continue operating at current capacity.”

One Valley restaurant veteran, however, said she has no problem with a shutdown if that’s what it takes to get the virus under control. In fact, Ann Ficorilli, longtime owner of LaRocca’s Pizza and Pasta in Poland, has already closed her dining room and now relies solely on takeout sales.

“I didn’t like the numbers so I closed my dining room two weeks ago,” Ficorilli said. “I’m here every day talking to people and when they say that their friends [tested positive]- no. That’s not going to work.”

LaRocca’s has an older clientele and Ficorilli said she does not want people who have been exposed to the virus potentially infecting others at her establishment.

“We are going to have to listen to DeWine,” she said. “They say the vaccine is coming, so it might only be another couple of months.”

Pictured: In this file photo from March, Blue Wolf Tavern set up a tent in its parking lot to assist with takeout orders. Owner Joe Rzonsa says a prolonged shutdown now would take away the most lucrative time of the year for most restaurants.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.