Local bars and restaurants are walking the razor thin line between keeping their businesses profitable and keeping their staff and patrons healthy amidst the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are a bit on edge with the latest surge,” said Olde Thyme Diner owner Chris Haddix, adding that the virus “seems to be everywhere.”
It has been two weeks since Knox County has charted a single day with fewer than 20 new COVID cases, and with nearly 400 total active cases currently, things are only expected to get worse if more residents don’t immediately make changes in their habits and behavior.
The dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks has led to some business owners voluntarily implementing more restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
Some establishments, like Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom at 529 Main St. and Vincennes Brewing Company, 124 Main St., have reduced seating to 50% capacity. Likewise, they have prominently displayed signage at the entryway, reminding patrons to wear a face mask when entering the building and walking past other guests.
But enforcing face coverings, something that has turned highly political in recent months, has been a challenge for many business owners.
VBC owner Charlie Bedwell says that while many of his regular brewery customers abide by the the mask policy — even if they disagree with it personally — many others simply refuse the requirement.
“Whenever the mask mandate came out, we took it seriously and we enforce it as strictly as we can,” said Bedwell, who added that “unfortunately, some people still walk in with a mask on their foreheads and think it’s funny.”
At Olde Thyme Diner, 331 Main St., Haddix says he has noticed increased masking from patrons in recent weeks, and he hopes that is a trend that continues despite the pandemic fatigue nearly everyone is feeling eight months into COVID-19.
“All you can is protect yourself as much as possible and hope for the best,” he said.
This third wave of the virus has brought three times the number of coronavirus cases than was seen in the August-September surge, and while Gov. Eric Holcomb has scaled back the capacity of social gatherings to no more than 50 people, some business owners, like Haddix, say they’re unclear about what exactly is expected of businesses.
“The original staged path forward from the state had very clear guidelines, but the latest statements from the governor are a lot less specific, which makes it difficult to follow,” Haddix said.
Bedwell shares that sense of confusion.
“I have no clue what’s coming next. When the governor spoke last week, I could tell he was going to do something, but I came out of it feeling confused.
“We’re limiting social gatherings, but what about us? What are we supposed to be doing right now?”
The two business owners say they feel the stress of the unknown — everything from the unpredictability of their income to the pressures of doing what is in the best interest of public health and safety.
Haddix said while Olde Thyme Diner weathered the storm of the first shutdown and kept all staff members on the payroll, it’s not something the diner could afford to do again.
“If there is another shutdown, we would likely have to lay off our staff temporarily and run it as a two-man crew with takeout only,” he said.
Bedwell said that while it is normal for business at VBC to ebb and flow, this year has been particularly unpredictable, though he noted a clear decline over the past week or two.
“It has been hard to gauge how the virus is affecting day-to-day sales, but this past weekend I noticed a difference,” he said.
Moving into the holiday season, the two men hope that residents will keep local businesses in the forefront of their minds, as the six weeks between Thanksgiving week and New Year’s Day are typically their most profitable time.
“Some of the things we would normally do during the holidays, we have to hold off this year, and that’s tough,” Bedwell said.
Both business owners say they’re as prepared as can be for whatever comes their way in the coming months.
Olde Thyme Diner has, thus far, found their increased cleaning measures, use of disposable items and masking requirements to be effective, but Haddix said if the numbers continue to surge in the coming days and weeks, they will also move to 50% seating capacity.
And at VBC, similar measures are being followed.
Bedwell said he and staff members are doing all they can to mitigate the spread of the virus through cleaning and masking efforts, as well as disposable cups in lieu of glassware.
“We definitely don’t want to be identified as a spot where someone gets COVID,” he said.
Bedwell and co-owners Geoff Goodwin and Tyler Simmons are also preparing to offer more carryout beer options, particularly important should another government-mandated shutdown occur.
“Our focus will be on finding ways to get our products out the door in a safer way,” he said, adding that in the event of a shutdown VBC will also revisit the option of delivering beer.
Though both Haddix and Bedwell understand — and feel — the fatigue of the lingering pandemic, they hope that as we move into the holiday season that the feeling of community and camaraderie that pervaded Knox County in the early days of the pandemic, will return.
“People have pandemic fatigue — I get it,” said Haddix.
Bedwell recalls the early weeks of the pandemic, saying that in March and April he “really saw the benefits of living in town like Vincennes.
“People were so supportive of one another,” he said, “but it feels like that support has grown weary.”