Half Empty

As Gov. Doug Ducey slashes restaurant occupancy down to 50 percent to curb the spread of coronavirus, some restaurants are concluding the juice isn’t worth the squeeze

As restaurants began resuming table service after the lifting of Gov. Doug Ducey's stay-at-home order, the Cup Cafe at Hotel Congress seemed positioned to make a comeback. The hotel has a large patio to offer outdoor dining, which health experts say is much safer than indoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But on July 1, hotel management made the decision to temporarily shutter The Cup altogether, along the hotel itself. The ongoing spike in COVID-19 cases in Pima County—and Arizona—alarmed the hotel's management, said General Manager Todd Hanley.

While Southern Arizona summers are typically slow for businesses, this summer is on another level, according to the manager.

"The driving factor behind the decision was a concern for the health and safety of our staff and community," Hanley said. "We're obviously seeing a dramatic increase in coronavirus cases and that put a lot into perspective for us. It's also the fact that it's summer and a really tough time of the year to be in any position successfully, but especially when you have COVID-19 starring you in the face."

The famed hotel does plan on reopening by Labor Day weekend—sans their annual HOCO fest—but it all depends on how the coronavirus situation progresses, said Hanley. Should the reopen date be delayed, Hanley said Hotel Congress would like to be back in business by October.

"If we can open by Labor Day weekend, we'll have a hard opening in early October unless something is mandated," Hanley said. "Our cash flow and cash reserves and PPP will be exhausted by mid-September, so at some point soon we have to be up and running."

Hanley said he has no doubt the hotel will return stronger than ever, considering the hotel has survived for everything from a major fire, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and the Great Depression.

"Hotel Congress has now at this point survived a fire and two pandemics," Hanley said. "We look forward reopening soon as the real cultural and historical institution downtown needs."

Hanley did decide to keep Maynards, the market and restaurant he runs across the street in the historic train depot. But other downtown restaurants such as Hub, Playground and DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails have closed temporarily in recent weeks as the number of coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in Arizona. In response, Gov. Doug Ducey last week ordered restaurants to limit their capacity to 50 percent.

The temporary closures aren't limited to downtown. Eastside Tucson's Fire and Smoke Wood Fired Pizza and BBQ also decided the juice wasn't worth the squeeze and closed down at the start of this week. Co-owner Lindy Reilly said personal health problems, slow business and the public's attitude toward wearing a mask contributed to the decision.

The owner said they had planned to shut down for a few weeks during the slow month of July, but after being diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to stroke and/or heart failure, Reilly decided a long break was needed.

"I'm just overworked, overstressed and it's taken its toll. My heart is in AFib right now and I just need to figure this out," Reilly said. "Sales are down and people aren't getting take out. Maybe some businesses are surviving, but I... I give up."

Reilly said he isn't sure at the moment if Fire and Smoke is going to reopen at the end of summer. With business slowing down, customers refusing to wear masks and the overall dismal climate of Tucson's restaurant community, Lindy may soon be looking for other options, he said.

"With to-go sales dropping off and dine-in not working at this point, I think people are squeezed. Bills are piling up, the money has run out and people are out of work, " Reilly said. "I'm also watching restaurant owners turn against each other. We used to be a family in this town but it doesn't feel like that anymore."

When some doors close, others open. Ken Dandoy, owner of the TTT Truckstop right outside of Tucson on Interstate-10 decided to reopen his restaurant, Omar's Hi-Way Chef, on Monday. Dandoy said he and his staff are doing what they can to make sure his customers are safe while in his establishment.

"We're using every precaution known to man. Truly we are," Dandoy said. "Everyone is gloved and masked. We have a sanitizing station. We also remodeled the restaurant. We've set tables up six feet apart and every other booth is closed."

Dandoy said management is also checking the temperatures of all staff and vendors as they enter the building and logging temperature checks as well as sanitation practices. So far, no one on Dandoy's staff has been diagnosed with COVID-19, he said.

"We're keeping a good logbook on both sides of the house," Dandoy said. "Knock on wood, we haven't had any problems yet."

The decision to bring back his employees in the middle of a pandemic wasn't taken lightly, said Dandoy. But he felt it was the right thing to do because many of his employees did not receive unemployment and are feeling the financial hardships during this difficult time.

"The ultimate bottom line was I think we had many of our employees not receiving any form of unemployment," Dandoy said. "Our biggest goal was to get the restaurant open but we want to make sure we do it safely. We want to be a part of the solution, not the problem."

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