Restaurants get the cold shoulder

A NUMBER OF FISH HOUSES and recreational vehicles could be found in the parking lot of Bitton’s Roadhouse in Garvin on Saturday, as patrons were not allowed to dine inside. Photos / Per Peterson

Establishments allowed to serve customers outdoors, but nothing more

By Per Peterson

Bitton’s Roadhouse proprietor Sissa Bitton isn’t happy about Gov. Tim Walz’s move last week to keep bars and restaurants closed to inside dining. Photo / Per Peterson

Bitton’s Roadhouse owner Sissa Bitton didn’t mince words last Wednesday night when talking about Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement last Wednesday that restaurants can welcome customers to their establishments, as long as it’s outside.

“I think opening for outside dining was about the stupidest thing he could’ve done,” said a frustrated Bitton. “If he would’ve given us that option three weeks ago when it was 40-50 degrees during Thanksgiving it would’ve been decent. But now, there’s nothing we can do. We don’t have the money to buy heaters … “

Count Diane Fiegen, owner of The Caboose in Tracy, as another local restaurant owner who can’t wrap her brain around the idea of outdoor dining during a Minnesota winter.

“This opening the patios to 50% is an asinine idea,” Fiegen said. “I don’t know any other way to explain it. Seriously? With 20-degree weather, people are really gonna go out there and eat hot food and sit in a cold chair? Really? I’m an optimist, that’s why I’m still here. I’m hoping we can open up and see something positive out of this.”

The pause on indoor dining across the state went into effect on Nov. 20 as part of a four-week dial-back plan that was supposed to expire Dec. 18. While extending the pause on indoor dining, Walz said bars and restaurants can have outdoor dining with 50% capacity or up to 100 people. That decision only bolstered a movement in Minnesota that includes restaurants that have chosen to defy the governor’s orders and open. ReOpen Minnesota includes mostly restaurants, but also on the list are bowling alleys, hotel water parks and gym/fitness centers (which are allowed to open at 50% capacity — up to 100 people at a time — as long as patrons wear masks and comply with a 12-foot social distancing rule).

Bitton said she will not join that list, even though she doesn’t agree whatsoever with the governor’s latest decision concerning bars and restaurants.

“We’re not willing to open up against his orders — whether we agree or disagree — because we respect what is trying to be done,” said Bitton. “But it’s killing us. A lot of these places aren’t going to be able to survive with just carry-out.”

Bitton said winter weather isn’t at all compatible with the direction the State is taking.

“Even though people are super-supportive, it’s winter,” she said. “It’s cold, it’s bad roads. So if he doesn’t do something soon to allow some indoor dining, I don’t see how a lot of places are going to be able to pull through. But we do appreciate every bit of business that people are giving us.”

The governor’s move to allow only outdoor dining is another in a long line of blows to the restaurant industry. Walz forced the closure of bars and restaurants in March as part of his “stay at home” order. This time around, it’s even more difficult to swallow.

“This one is probably 25% worse than the first one,” Bitton said. “It’s not as new, people are sick of it. And it’s cold. It’s just cold. Really good food, you appreciate it, you sit in a restaurant, it’s the ambiance — if you bring it home in plastic, it’s just not the same, even though people are doing it and we appreciate it. People are sick of it.”

Like Bitton, Fiegen has seen a drop in carry-out business compared to March.

“People don’t have the money to spend — it’s Christmas,” she said. “We have nights with one or two orders, that’s not gonna keep our doors open. And we don’t know what’s gonna happen in January.”

See this week’s Headlight Herald for more on this article.