Restaurateurs reject May 1 reopening recommendation

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 20, 2020 6:35 AM CT | Published: April 20, 2020 4:00 AM CT

It’s been one month since Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland ordered restaurant dining rooms to close, though by then they were so empty that some had already shut the doors to ride out the COVID-19 storm. A temporary closing was imminent even without the March 20 order for virtually all area restaurants.

Some have adopted a new takeout model and are limping along, but it’s sustainable only in the short run. Chefs and owners long to get back to full service, to the clink of glasses and the clatter of silverware, the laughter of happy customers in full dining rooms.

Just not yet, they say.

Yet Ernie Mellor, president of the Memphis Restaurant Association, is on a task force advising Gov. Bill Lee on how to reopen restaurants in the state. The committee is presenting a plan to the governor Monday, April 20, and the recommended date to reopen is May 1.

<strong>Ernie Mellor</strong>

Ernie Mellor

“We’re pushing statewide for a quick reopen,” Mellor said. “We want to phase it in at 50% seating for two weeks, 75% for two weeks, and then reopen 100% after four weeks.

“Of course, the governor can come back and say whatever he wants. And if someone doesn’t want to open, they don’t have to.”

Mellor said even he thinks May 1 might be too soon for Shelby County, which at present has the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the state with 1,766, but that it could be the right date for other counties.

<strong>Deni Reilly</strong>

Deni Reilly

“If we just ride this out, we can be one and done,” said Deni Reilly, who co-owns The Majestic Grille with her husband Patrick. “If we rush to reopen the economy, well, that’s not what we’re doing. We’re opening Pandora’s Box.

“We haven’t even peaked yet in Memphis and Shelby County. It’s civically irresponsible, and it’s operationally unobtainable for most restaurants. Where can we even get paper masks for our employees?”

The COVID model released by Vanderbilt University earlier in April shows that social distancing is working and has the state peak mid-May in the best-case scenario, mid-June in a moderate scenario and a sudden spike resulting in up to 50,000 hospitalizations in the worst case projection, if social distancing rules are relaxed.

Last week, Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said the Shelby County peak is expected to be in late May to early June.

Other restaurateurs echoed Reilly’s thoughts.

<strong>Eric Vernon</strong>

Eric Vernon

“The reality is, of course, I want to open up as quickly as possible, but in Memphis, we’re not isolating like we should,” said Eric Vernon, co-owner of the Bar-B-Q Shop with his parents. “People are still getting together in groups. I don’t think it’s time. Not April, not May.”

Erling Jensen owns Erling Jensen: The Restaurant in East Memphis. He already had a well-developed catering element to his business and switched to takeout and delivery. His business is running at about 15% of normal, and sure, he wants to reopen.

But not yet.

Erling Jensen: The Restaurant to expand in early 2020

“I would think in the middle of June, wouldn’t you think? In our case, we’re building our bar out and we can have some kind of grand opening,” he said. “I don’t think I would open before that. If anyone said we could, I would have to talk to other people and also use good sense, see which way the wind is blowing.”

Wally Joe, ditto. He closed Acre, his upscale restaurant in East Memphis, two days before Strickland issued the order to close March 20. He’s one of a handful of well-known restaurateurs who isn’t doing takeout as he doesn’t think his food is suited to it, and he’s ready to reopen.

My Favorite Things: Chicken liver pate at Acre

“I’ve been keeping in close contact with my guys and we’ve been formulating a plan,” Joe said. “I don’t think reopening is wise until early June and even then, we’ll limit capacity.”

Reilly also spoke of social distancing inside the restaurants, feasible for The Majestic Grille, which seats 250. But not for Kelly English’s Restaurant Iris.

“I have 12 tables,” he said. “I’m going to open with six tables? I can’t imagine any kind of restaurant experience happening before June.”

The Rendezvous will open on its schedule, co-owner John Vergos said.

“We’re not opening May 1. I don’t know if there’s a specific metric I’m looking for, but when I know our employees are safe and our customers are safe, we’ll open. Our customer and employee safety is paramount.

“If we have to stay closed an extra month or so, then we do. Or an extra two months. We’re in it now, so we just see it through to the end.”

Mellor said he thinks a sooner end is preferable to a later one. He believes that some local restaurants will close if they have to push reopening dates to June 1. But all he can do is make the recommendation as a member of the committee, which he said is one of many Lee has advising him.

“If the governor says we’re going to go May 15 or June 1, then it is what it is,” he said. “He makes his decision and he may change it. I don’t think so, but he might. We don’t want anybody sick.”

While he’s speaking as a member of the committee, Mellor said the Memphis Restaurant Association supports the May 1 date.

“We had a board meeting the other day and we did not take a vote, but we talked about it and the MRA would love to see the doors open May 1 if the governor so chooses,” Mellor said. “There is not an official stance, but I’ll make it official because I’ve talked to the people and I know what they want.”

Reilly says that public safety is a moral responsibility, but that restaurants could be damaged by rushing the calendar.

“It could be potentially damaging to the restaurant industry,” she said. “Say someone opens early and there’s an outbreak that centers around a restaurant or a group of restaurants? It could really hurt our industry. We need guidance from the CDC and for the powers that be to tell us what social distancing in a restaurant looks like. We’re not infectious disease experts.”

They raised two other concerns about prematurely opening: Is it worth opening to very sparse crowds?

“I’m sure there are people who will try to open earlier if they’re allowed to, but I think it’s a complete waste of time if people won’t go out to eat,” Joe said. “I don’t think they will.”

“Downtown restaurants depend on workplaces being full, particularly during the week,” Reilly said. “Is AutoZone going to be back May 1? Is ServiceMaster?”

Vergos pointed out there’s a lack of events to draw people.

“Downtown is really hurt,” he said. “Concerts are canceled, there’s no basketball, nothing at the FedExForum, nothing at The Orpheum.”

And they pointed out that it’s critical to reopen only when they get it right, some citing recent Paycheck Protection Program loans obtained under the CARES Act.

“There are layers to everything. There’s a responsibility not only to the public, but also to our team members. We have to make smart decisions with our resources to be sure our restaurants are still here when this is over,” English said.

“Besides the very obvious moral implications of possibly making people sick, there’s the issue that we have one loan, one chance,” Reilly said. “If we have a spike and we have to start over as a society, it’s a minimum of 14 days of closure and we can’t do this again.”

Vernon believes a misstep now could sound the death knell for restaurants and other local businesses; he urges patience.

“We have to restrain ourselves long enough for people to get back to something like a normal life. If we don’t get this right, businesses are going to close,” Vernon said. “If we don’t social distance and let this thing pass through, the way it’s supposed to, we’re going to lose some special places in Memphis.”

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Deni Reilly The Majestic Grille Ernie Mellor Eric Vernon Erling Jensen
Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs is a native Memphian and veteran food writer and journalist who covers all things food, dining and spirits related for The Daily Memphian.


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