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SCV restaurants, business leaders react to shutdown

Cherie McGraham, owner of Smokehouse on Main, serves guests sitting in her restaurant's outdoor dining area Monday afternoon. November 23, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

In what most Santa Clarita Valley restaurant owners are describing as a “gut punch,” L.A. County officials have once again ordered the shutdown of dine-in operations at restaurants, breweries, wineries and bars as COVID-19 figures continue to surge.

“It’s just wrong,” Cherie McGraham, owner of Smokehouse on Main, said Monday. “Society needs to be able to be responsible for themselves at this point. You can’t keep shutting down the world — you just can’t, and I’m so angry about it.”

It’s been nearly five months since Gov. Gavin Newsom announced restaurants in 19 counties, including L.A. County, must cease indoor dine-in operations for at least three weeks. 

Pedro Daniel serves guests at Olive Terrace’s outdoor dining area Monday afternoon. November 23, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

Since then, indoor dining has yet to return to the SCV, as high COVID-19 figures continuously put the county in the most restrictive tier of the state’s blueprint, which only allows for outdoor dining. 

Even then, with the new restrictions announced Sunday, the county is set to have a more restrictive order than that of the state. 

“Closing our businesses is disappointing to say the least. People depend on these services for income, for jobs, for insurance and to support their families,” said Ivan Volschenk, managing partner at Evolve Business Strategies, which manages the SCV Chamber of Commerce.

It’s for this reason among others that SCV restaurant owners remain stressed by the ever-changing restrictions as the holidays approach.

Restaurants like Salt Creek Grille in Valencia must keep up with an ever-changing set of health related guidelines. November 23, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

Thanksgiving dinner is canceled

With the new health order set to go into effect 10 p.m. Wednesday, its restrictions have essentially canceled Thanksgiving dinner plans for restaurants and residents across the county.

“I think what’s really frustrating and difficult for these businesses is that it’s being once again done on extraordinarily short notice,” said Holly Schroeder, CEO and president of the SCV Economic Development Corp. “(This time), it happens to fall on a holiday where restaurants had planned for socially distant Thanksgiving dinners and had ordered supplies, food, and staffing, and now, that’s all become lost costs that they can’t recover. … Who knows whether or not takeout will make up for that loss.” 

Valencia’s Salt Creek Grille, which had planned a special holiday menu for its patrons this Thanksgiving, immediately got to work, calling those who’d made reservations to see if they’d like to get their meals to go instead.

“One of the biggest problems is it’s the second or third busiest day of the year for us, and we’ve already been ordering all of our food, all the turkeys and everything else,” Salt Creek owner Greg Amsler said. “Hopefully we can get through them, but if we can’t, it’s going to be a bit of a gut punch if a lot of this stuff is going to go to waste.” 

Restaurant guests enjoy an outdoor dining experience at Salt Creek Grille in Valencia Monday afternoon. November 23, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

The hidden expenses and reasons 

“The Public Health orders seem to think all of this is just the flip of a switch and everything just happens — it’s just not really the way the real world works,” Schroeder said.

It’s hidden expenses like the Christmas decorations or the outdoor heaters restaurants just purchased or even the tents that they’ve been renting that add up as another stressor.

“We have spent so far $27,000 on COVID-related (supplies), and that’s still only getting 60% to 70% of normal sales,” Amsler said. “It’s even more frustrating when most people (are) …. doing a very good job of playing by the rules.”

Jo and Larry Wertz enjoy a lunch at the outdoor dining area of Old Town Junction in Newhall Monday afternoon. November 23, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

For Amsler, it’s frustrating that he has yet to see any Public Health data suggest that restaurants are causing the spike in COVID-19 cases.

“The bottom line is, show me the science that says restaurants are causing all this because it seems to be that we’re taking the brunt of everything,” he added.

Schooners Patio Grille owner Teri Ledesma agreed, adding, “The unfortunate thing is — and I feel that most restaurants here in the Santa Clarita Valley have done the same — we have taken every single precaution and done everything that the Health Department has made enforced. … I’m doing everything right, and I haven’t had one case.”

Restaurant guests enjoy an outdoor dining experience at Olive Terrace in Valencia Monday afternoon. November 23, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

How long this time?

While Public Health officials have said that these restrictions will remain in place for a minimum of three weeks, most believe they’ll be in place much longer.

“If they’re scared of Thanksgiving, they’re going to be petrified of Christmas and New Year’s, so they say a minimum of three weeks, but I’d be shocked if anything happens before the beginning of the year,” Amsler said, adding that most businesses, not just restaurants, make most of their profit during that six-week period.

“It’s not going to be three weeks, it’s just not,” McGraham added. “Last time, I kidded myself into thinking we’d be back (up and running) in two weeks. … I’m not oblivious this time.”

Fortunately for McGraham, when Public Health announced it was tightening restrictions last week, she guessed right that this would be the next step.

“I told my chef not to over order because we lost about $8,000 of perishables last time,” she said. 

Others, like Ledesma, who just purchased outdoor heaters she won’t be needing, aren’t as lucky. 

“It is a big blow,” Ledesma added. “The first time it really messed with me mentally and emotionally, the stress, because I just didn’t know what to expect. This time I feel different about it. Fortunately, I do know what to expect, and I’m not going to let it create stress in my life. I’m going to be back when we’re ready to reopen. My biggest concern now is my employees.”

McGraham agreed, adding, “I can’t even think selfishly at this point, I know way too many stories. … The fallout is going to way outweigh any pandemic, any COVID.”

Restaurant guests enjoy an outdoor dining experience at Salt Creek Grille in Valencia Monday afternoon. November 23, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

What now? 

“We must all remember we are in this together. When the COVID counts go up, we must collectively do a better job of staying safe and healthy,” Volschenk said. “Our businesses are counting on us to stay healthy and safe so they can stay open. Let’s do this for our businesses, our neighbors, our families and our friends. Please wear a mask, wash your hands and practice social distancing.”

The SCV Chamber, along with other local business leaders as well as restaurant owners, are continuing to stand with the U.S. Chamber in calling for the government’s full support by providing the resources necessary for a broad-based economic recovery.

“We call on Congress to pass additional pandemic relief targeted at the American businesses, workers and industries that continue to suffer. We all need to unite behind the need of a broad-based economic recovery,” Volschenk added.

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