Restaurants Having Mixed Results with New State Rules

by Michael Bielawski
photo by Vanessa Fournier
A beautiful fall day in Hardwick brought people out to the businesses on Main Street Saturday. Normally this would have been the weekend for The Heart of Vermont Chamber of Commerce Fall Foliage Craft Fair, but like everything else, the event was canceled because of COVID-19.

HARDWICK – While many Vermont restaurants began offering outdoor seating and takeout dining to mitigate losses caused by the COVID-19 shutdown, the Independent Restaurant Coalition predicts that nationally up to 85 percent of the nation’s independently owned restaurants may go out of business if they cannot get back to normal soon.

Not all local restaurants and bars can take advantage of the state’s new business operation rules. Anne Marie Shea, general manager for the Whammy Bar at Maple Corner General Store in Calais, said her venue will not benefit from Governor Scott’s September 18 announcement that dining halls are now permitted to operate at 50 percent capacity, up from 25 percent.

“I spoke with the Vermont Department of Liqueur about this,” Shea said. “And the size of our business is prohibitive to it being financially viable to be open and only able to maintain 50 percent [occupancy].”

Due to COVID-19 safety guidelines, safety protocols for restaurants include spacing each group of patrons six feet apart, requiring patrons to wear masks when not seated, and installing a barrier between servers and patrons sitting at a counter or bar.

Shea said the General Store, which remains open, has kept the business afloat, but closing the bar has caused a significant loss of income. The bar was also a popular community gathering spot, she said.

“We can fit a lot of people in there and often we did, and it was so much fun,” Shea recalled. “And that’s really what’s lacking is the kind of gathering place for the community.”

Shea said the Whammy Bar closed a few weeks before the governor issued the statewide shutdown last March out of concern for employee safety. During the summer, it held a few outdoor concerts.

But not all local businesses have struggled to survive during COVID-19.

Tiffany Clifford, co-owner of Connie’s Kitchen in Hardwick, said the shutdown orders had little impact on her bakery, which offers a breakfast and lunch menu and features a small dining space.

“It’s been pretty good, we’ve actually been really busy since we reopened on May 4,” Clifford said. “We did a lot of takeout anyways, so that stayed the same.”

She added that because there are only a few tables in the bakery’s small dining area, it wasn’t difficult to set them six feet apart.

Nicholas Vassiliadis, owner of the House of Pizza in Hardwick, said that his business was also largely unaffected by the shutdown.

“The business is going well,” he said. “It was mostly takeout before anyway.”

Despite the state’s low number of COVID-19 cases, Clifford said she thinks Vermont is “not quite” ready to get back to normal.

“I think that once we let our guard down that this may get out of hand again,” she said. “And I don’t want to be shut down again.”

The Local Economic Impact Report, released by Yelp in late July, showed that 60% of the restaurants that temporarily closed due to the pandemic have since shuttered for good. There were 26,160 total restaurant closures on Yelp as of July 10 and 15,770 of those have made the decision permanent, according to Yelp.