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Small Businesses, Restaurants Remain On Alert As COVID-19 Cases Climb

By Jenny Callison, posted Jan 7, 2021
As the number of cases of COVID-19 rises in New Hanover and surrounding counties, operational uncertainty increases for small businesses.
 
New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties are now in the “Critical/Red” category, according to state Health and Human Services data. Coronavirus exposure to retail and restaurant staffers has owners sometimes having to make frequent decisions about whether to stay open or close temporarily.
 
Earlier this week, The Transplanted Garden shut down for a few days because an employee was unwittingly exposed to an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. The employee had a visitor on New Year’s Day who stayed for several hours and whose husband was ill and had been tested for COVID. The husband learned the following day that he had the virus.
 
When the employee was notified of his exposure Saturday, he immediately went home to quarantine, according to The Transplanted Garden co-owner Tom Ericson. Ericson closed the nursery.
 
“I could never, ever, expose my customers to a possible super-spreader event,” he said via email Wednesday. "This has cost me money that I will never recoup. I will pay my staff out of my own pocket. They cannot afford to lose salary.”
 
After doing some research on virus transmission, Ericson felt comfortable enough to reopen his business Thursday, but he’s upset that someone spent time with his employee, knowing she was possibly spreading the virus.
 
At the beginning of December, the AAA Car Care Center on Oleander Drive in Wilmington closed for two weeks following an employee’s COVID diagnosis. It reopened and has remained open since.
 
Restaurants have been hit especially hard since customers cannot wear masks while eating and drinking and cold weather has driven more people inside to dine.
 
Rx Restaurant in downtown Wilmington experienced a COVID scare around Christmas. After a brief closure, the restaurant reopened for take-out only. Owners James and Sarah Rushing Doss have eagerly anticipated the completion of their heated outdoor patio, but construction has been slower than projected, so there was no way to restart safe in-person dining. Finally, the couple decided to pause dining operations to enable their staff members to apply for unemployment.
 
“With increased unemployment benefits available through March, we decided that was the only thing we felt good about,” Rushing Doss said Thursday. “We held out for that [legislation] because we didn’t want to put our employees out to dry.”

The patio will be finished by the time Rx reopens, Rushing Doss said.
 
Rx is far from the only restaurant playing open-and-shut over the past months. Last summer, two K-38 Baja Grill locations were among restaurants temporarily shuttering because of COVID exposure. Kornerstone Bistro in Porters Neck took advantage of an exposure shutdown to do a deep clean of the restaurant and install further sanitizing measures.
 
In November, Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria on Greenfield Street closed briefly because of a staff member’s exposure. After a deep clean, the restaurant reopened.
 
Last week, PinPoint Restaurant bowed to circumstances, explaining its action in a Facebook post.
 
“This week has been a fitting end to 2020. It became our turn to have COVID hit home,” the post stated. “After a second positive test, we decided to cancel our NYE [New Year’s Eve] dinner service. It is the only decision to make. We apologize for any inconvenience.
 
“When we reopened in May, our first priority was keeping people safe, to make sure that we did everything to protect our loved ones. With COVID cases increasing, it currently feels impossible to provide a safe environment for our team and guests.
 
“We are extending this closure into a Winter break. The folks in Washington getting off their butts made this decision easier. We haven’t made any decisions regarding a reopening date. We will monitor the COVID situation, and decide what is best for everyone.”
 
Pizzeria Il Forno, located at The Pointe at Barclay, is among the latest eateries to announce a temporary closing as a defensive move, despite not having any employees test positive. A text message announced that the restaurant’s last night of dinner service will be Saturday.
 
“We feel that it is in everyone’s best interest to take this next precautionary measure to keep our guests and staff safe,” the message stated. “We will take these next few weeks to work on new menu ideas and sharpen our trade. Rest assured we will reopen as soon as we feel it is the proper environment.”
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