BILLINGS — Billings restaurant managers are feeling uncertain Tuesday about the prospect of reduced capacity to 25 percent if Yellowstone County's COVID-19 situation doesn't improve by the end of the month.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s a little scary. The first time we were shut down, none of us anticipated that it would be two and a half months. So, I’m a little scared coming into flu season. I mean, I’ve got 50 employees," said Melissa Gjerde, general manager at the 406 Kitchen and Taproom.
On Monday, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said he would issue new restrictions on bars, restaurants, casinos, churches and group gatherings if infection rates don't slow by Oct. 31.
If the rate of infections in the final week of October rises above 40 percent, restaurants, bars, casinos and places of worship will be capped at 25 percent capacity. Currently, Yellowstone County restaurants are operating at 75 percent capacity under phase two of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's reopening plan.
Gjerde said business at the 406 Kitchen is not viable at 25 percent capacity.
“Well, no one really is (viable). You know, the lights still run the same. The light bill doesn’t get cheaper. The water bill doesn’t get cheaper. You still have to pay those bills. It’s scary, needless to say,” Gjerde said.
The situation is much the same at Montana Brewing Co. Co-owner Sean Graves said the business would be tough to maintain at 25 percent capacity.
“If we have to go from 75 percent occupancy down to 25, that’s going to be pretty insane to figure out how we can maintain to keep this space open. We would have to bank and pray that we would have a tremendous amount of take-out orders to keep that going. But that would be a pretty interesting thing, because at 50 percent it’s tough to make it. Going down to 25 percent is not really feasible," Graves said.
Earlier in the year, Yellowstone County businesses were shut down starting in mid-March by health officer order with a goal to slow COVID-19 spread in the community. Many area restaurants didn't open their dining rooms to customers until May 4, when the state moved into phase two of the reopening plan.
During the first shut down, the restaurants had some financial backing from the federal government from the Paycheck Protection Program. The loans that were designed to help businesses keep employees on the payroll expired on Aug. 8. That safety net won't be available if restaurants shut down county-wide at the end of the month.
"We couldn’t have done it without the extra PPP money, reopen with the staff. Because you’re at limited capacity and not everyone can come back at full time. People who would normally have 30 hours per week were only getting 15 hours. So, that PPP money really helped get them off unemployment, get them back to work," Gjerde said.
At Montana Brewing Co., Graves said the PPP loan was able to help him keep his 100 employees.
“Fortunately at that time, there was some federal aid. With our employees being able to get some federal unemployment benefits. That helped out with $600 a week and then $400. This closure is pretty concerning because that money is gone," Graves said.
And more isn't coming soon. Earlier today, President Trump announced on Twitter he was ending negotations on a new COVID-stimulus package until after the election. A new round of relief could have provided restaurants hurt by the pandemic with additional much-needed money to keep operating.
Both restaurant managers said they would have to shift back to offering take-out service if capacity is reduced at the end of the month. They urged the community to wear masks, keep socially distanced, and wash their hands to help keep the community's restaurants open.
"If we don’t wear a mask, if we don’t wash our hands, if we come to work when we’re sick, we’re going to get shut down. We can’t afford to do it and the other bars and restaurants can’t afford to do it," Graves said.
Gjerde said she doesn't want to see more local restaurants close if the restrictions are put in place.
"We’ve lost a lot of great local restaurants in this town. It was really hard to watch. I would hate to see that happen again and unfortunately that’s probably going to be the case if they’re all shut down again," Gjerde said.