Wheeling Restaurant Owners Have Mixed Feelings on Reopening at 100-Percent Capacity
WHEELING — With Gov. Jim Justice announcing an end to capacity-based restrictions on restaurants due to the COVID-19 pandemic, local restaurateurs have expressed a range of opinions on the lack of regulation.
On Friday, Justice announced that restaurants and bars could accept up to 100 percent capacity as long as six feet of distance could be maintained between patrons. Standing room, such as in bars, is still prohibited. Masks are still required.
Mike Duplaga, owner of Generations Restaurant and Pub, said the lifting of the restrictions came just in time for the Mountain East basketball tournament. His restaurant was a fan-favorite meeting spot for those who attended the small-college tournament.
Generations’ spacious interior meant it was able to reach capacity without worrying about social distancing concerns, since the tables were already spread out.
“It just means we could fill all of our tables; the size of Generations is so vast, we have natural distancing anyway, which is to our advantage,” Duplaga said. “As far as lifting the regulations, it couldn’t come at a better time. We were full. (The tournament) led to full capacity and huge crowds all weekend long. I couldn’t ask for better timing.”
Duplaga said they were ready to receive people who were happy to get out, and had been busy in keeping service up. Generations is adding 32 seats to their outdoor deck eating area, but other than that, Duplaga said, they were business as usual.
At the Alpha Tavern, seating will remain the same as they had, but there was more flexibility in how they could be arranged. However, tables still could not be combined for larger gatherings.
Mitchell Haddad, a spokesman for Later Alligator, took a decidedly different stance, rebuking Justice for removing the capacity cap. Haddad had previously written to the city council last spring, saying that the partial reopenings allowed at the time put undue strain on small restaurants and endangered their workers, many of whom did not have quality health insurance.
Haddad has since stayed the course, uncomfortable with reopenings and dissatisfied with the recent announcement.
“They’re incredibly foolish before we have a vaccinated population,” Haddad said. “It’s going to set everybody back, and this is why we (shouldn’t) let politicians make medical decisions.
“I don’t know that we’re even going to stay at 50 percent capacity,” he added. “When we got approved by the health department for the socially distanced seating that we had, I still thought it was too tight. We space people out — we’re not trying to overrun the restaurant.”
Haddad said Later Alligator would continue socially distancing and wearing masks until “someone with some medical authority tells us to go back.”
“Somebody with some actual, trusted medical authority, a respected medical source,” he said. “This is the situation where we’re going to continue to put people before profits as much as feasibly possible in a time of pandemic.”
Haddad lamented that the ongoing pandemic prevented him from hiring live music and other performers for the restaurant. Yet once it is safe to do so, he will be first in line to book them.
“I cannot wait,” he said. “I feel so bad for our musician and artist friends that don’t have the places to perform that they should. But in the same breath, I can’t reasonably schedule a special event and say ‘Please come perform in our courtyard,’ when what I need to say is to please come, stay six feet or more away from somebody, and wear a mask.
“It’s awful for them, it’s not a lot of fun for us,” he continued, “and we’ll return to having music and arts events when it’s safe for the people doing the work to do the work well. I’ve reached out to every single one of my musician friends and said, ‘I love you. You’re going to be the best part of the summer, and I hope we get part of a summer.’ And when that happens, I’ll book the musicians twice a week if I have to. I’m going to wear people out with music.”