Local bars and establishments are bracing themselves for potential closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most local drinking holes have remained open as the number of cases has continued to increase, but there are many who worry about the possibility of people spreading the virus at their business.
“Because of the massive amounts of people that we serve, a lot of money handling, drink handling, it’s definitely a hot spot for spreading,” said Nicole Saafeld, owner of Cork & Barrel in Park Plaza who also works for Sahara Lounge at Boulevard Lanes. “It’s a tough decision to make, especially for a place like Sahara, because this is our busiest week of the entire year with St. Patrick’s Day and March Madness" (Sahara remains open as of Thursday. The kitchen is open from noon to 8 p.m. for pick-up orders, but the lounge itself is limiting its attendance to about 10 people).
The month of March has already been turned upside down due to the virus, as the NCAA men's basketball tournament was canceled (Omaha would have hosted first and second-round games) and many cities across the country have limited bar access due to the steady spread of the virus.
In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts has asked that all public events in the state be limited to 10 people or less, as community spread of the virus has begun in Omaha. Discovery of a second so-called "community transmission" case of the coronavirus in Omaha on Wednesday triggered further restrictions on restaurants and bars in the city.
Ricketts told a news conference that he will ask those businesses to confine their sales to take-out and drive-thru purchases in order to attempt to stem the spread of the virus.
Saafeld has already closed up her Fabulous Forever consignment store (which she co-owns with her sister) in order to keep people safe, and she’s in touch with her friends who own businesses downtown to make sure that the response to COVID-19 on their end is a united one.
“I’ve been in talks with many business owners, in different styles of businesses, from retail to restaurants (and) bars (and) we’re working together,” Saafeld said. “We’re definitely staying in touch with each other as far as being on the same page and how to go about it as best as we can. It is such an unknown.”
Closing down parts of a store is familiar territory for Kenny Kallenbach, who had to shut down his bar (CK Grill and Bar) last year following the historic March 2019 flooding. Now, he plans to go to a take-out only model this time around in order to prevent a large degree of people in his establishment.
“I’ve never had to do this in 16 years,” Kallenbach said. “I’ve already sent (my employees) out to get unemployment and I’m going to try to clean. There’s some stuff that we can do, always.”
Stepfanie Caranci, of Picket Fence Cafe, said that the impact of potential closures to in-person dining will have a detrimental impact on her employees. Many of them work for below minimum wage, and tips are the primary way that they can make money. Without people in the restaurant, and with a slow stream of people looking for takeout, her store is feeling the pinch.
“I normally have a staff of about 16,” Caranci said. “I have cut it down to two employees per day. We have hardly any foot traffic. We do have a lot of to-go orders, but not anything that’s more than what we’re used to.”
Picket Fence limited its in-house seating, changing its hours from 6 a.m.-3 p.m. this week. The downtown eatery will also continue offering to-go orders.
All of these establishments and others are likely going to have to hunker down for an extended period of time. An abatement of the crisis isn’t likely to come until the weather gets warmer, so social distancing and preventing human contact is critical at this time.
But the people of Columbus have proven their resiliency, and Kallenbach is ready to get back to normal, whenever that time may come.
“We get things thrown at us all the time, no matter what life throws at us,” Kallenbach said. “We’ve got to keep moving on and prepare for the better times (when we) get back to normal again.”
Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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