ALBANY — Glenn Singfield, the owner of The Flint and Albany Fish Co. restaurants in Albany and one of a group of 17 restaurant and business owners who met as a group at the downtown Convention & Visitors Bureau Thursday, said what most in the group were thinking when he said opening businesses at this point is like “playing Russian roulette with our staff and our customers.”
Phoebe Putney Health System President/CEO Scott Steiner added a more solemn touch to Singfield’s statement.
“(Opening businesses now) is a guessing game,” Steiner said. “And if we guess wrong, people will die.”
Mayor Bo Dorough, Albany City Commissioners B.J. Fletcher — who is also a restaurant owner — and Chad Warbington, as well as CVB officials took part in the gathering that attracted 15 business owners representing nine well-known dining establishments from throughout the city. As the meeting wound down, the restaurateurs decided collectively that they would not open on Monday but would wait until “benchmarks” indicated doing so would offer a greater level of safety.
“We might consider opening in phases: Phase 1 might be outdoor dining, Phase 2 maintaining a 6-foot distance between customers and Phase 3 fully opening,” Austin’s owner Austin Newman suggested.
Steiner, who gave the restaurant owners an update on corona cases at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, said he did not imagine that members of the health care industry would be comfortable telling business owners whether they should or shouldn’t open. But he said the group gathered Thursday would make a more powerful statement that would set the tone for other restaurants in the community.
“Mayor Dorough said earlier you guys could make lemonade out of the lemons you’ve been handed, and you’re doing just that,” the health system CEO said. “This (meeting) and the decisions you make collectively are powerful. By taking a stand not to open until you see certain positive benchmarks in the community and announcing it, you have seized an opportunity. You are dictating the message in a powerful way.”
CVB Executive Director Rashelle Beasley said that as businesses across the state start to re-open, it’s imperative that — with national and state media focusing on the region as a coronavirus hot spot — Albany and the surrounding area show that there is a comeback plan in place and let them see what that plan looks like once it’s in action.
“We hope those national news outlets come back and help tell the world how we turned this around,” Beasley said.
Steiner said repairing the city’s image will be a vital step.
“Already at hospitals in Tallahassee and Columbus, they’re asking patients ‘Have you been to Albany or Macon recently?’ as one of their screening questions (for potential COVID-19 patients),” he said. “We really have to do a job of educating people here in southwest Georgia and people from outside who come here.”
After Steiner opened the informal gathering by discussing virus-related numbers at Phoebe, Singfield and Fletcher opened up about issues that concern them and many of the other restaurateurs in attendance.
“The world is looking at Albany, Georgia, right now, and it is imperative that we take the opportunities we’re given to show them the better side of our community,” Singfield said. “I think the least we can do here today is set some standards, come up with protocols that all of us can agree on. I applaud our mayor for saying that he thinks the governor is wrong to re-open businesses at this time, and, frankly, I think he’s crazy to do so.
“I don’t mind telling y’all, I’m not opening up (Monday). If any of you do, I applaud you and wish you well. But it’s personal with me … my son is our chef, my wife our host … and I’m not going to do it.”
Fletcher said she’s made initial contact with City Manager Sharon Subadan and plans to take her request to the full commission about giving restaurant owners breaks on utilities, sewage, rental/mortgages and refuse collection.
“(Restaurants) are probably 60 percent of this community’s work force,” Fletcher said. “I think I’m standing in the middle of some of the hardest workers there are in our community, and I hope my colleagues in the city government will join me in looking at ways we can help this group.”
Fletcher said she’s read reports of the impact obesity has on people with the virus and their general health, and she vowed to change her buffet restaurant to a cafeteria-style format with healthier foods for her customers.
“This has really opened my eyes,” she said.
Stewbo’s principle Bo Henry said opening prematurely could be the death knell for many local restaurants.
“We don’t — individually or even as a group — have the right to tell anyone not to open,” Henry said. “But if we come back now and things get twice as bad, then we’re going to have to close for three months. And I can promise you, a lot of restaurants cannot survive that. And there’s not going to be another pile of (stimulus) money the next time.”
Newman said the local restaurants stand to suffer if corporate-owned eateries open and the virus spikes.
“We’re all local restaurants: What if the (corporate-owned) Outbacks and the Olive Gardens open anyway and the virus comes back even worse?” he said. “We’re the ones who will suffer.”
Dorough, who appeared Monday on the NBC “Today” show and talked about businesses re-opening in the hot spot community, told the restaurant owners that he recommended they not open.
“It’s your right (under Kemp’s order) to open, but I don’t recommend you do,” he said. “We’ve been told (by the governor) specific guidelines would be forthcoming, but so far we haven’t seen any. I will tell you that in Albany, there will be compliance checks. That’s not (a threat of) harassment; it’s just what’s going to happen in Albany. I think the governor erred by not allowing exceptions to be made in hot spots like we have here. There’s nothing sinister about the decision, but I think it’s irresponsible.
“I do think, though, that if any restaurant is hell-bent on opening Monday and they do, I don’t believe the people are going to come.”
The group agreed to send out a joint message to the community explaining why they’ve chosen not to open on Monday. The members also agreed to meet again next Thursday to try and put together a set of benchmarks that should be a prerequisite for opening their restaurants.
The group expressed dismay that officials with the health department did not attend the meeting and asked Beasley to urge them to come to the next one.