‘None of us want to die’: Restaurants grapple with decision to reopen or remain closed

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Apr 28, 2020 at 8:25 PM

For the first time since March 23, local restaurants were able to serve guests in their dining rooms — something Blaine Ratliff has been looking forward to since it stopped.

“I want to eat at a restaurant,” said Ratliff, who went to Hokie Smokie Brisket and BBQ for lunch on Monday. “I think this is overdone … you can social distance yourself (in a restaurant) — why are liquor stores and other things open but restaurants and other businesses can’t open?

“It’s hurting these small business owners, man,” Ratliff added.

Inside Hokie Smokie’s dining room, just across the street from The Mall at Johnson City on W. Mountcastle Dr, tables are spaced approximately six feet apart, and servers wear masks when taking orders — a new normal as the state adjusts to life in the midst of a pandemic.

Still, Hokie Smokie owners Mike Warren and Ramon Sanchez welcomed seeing Ratliff and his friend Dan Sloniker take a seat in a booth just inside the front door.

For the first time in nearly five weeks, they had a customer sit down in their restaurant.

“I don't know how many restaurants won’t be reopening, but we wish them all well but we’re doing what we have to do to stay alive and hopefully be on the other side,” Warren said.

Still, both Warren and Sanchez are acutely aware of the risk of being open and serving guests poses, though after weeks of little profit from take-out and delivery orders, they have little choice but to reopen.

“None of us want to get it,” Warren said. “None of us want to die — that’s a fact. Our goal right now is to stay alive (as a business).”

Some restaurant owners, however, are a little more hesitant to reopen — especially with the number of new cases in the state continuing to rise.

“We’re going to keep waiting — we don’t know exactly how long — just to see where this goes,” said Nathan Brand, owner of Timber! On West Walnut Street in Johnson City.

Brand said he’s not sure there’s enough data to support reopening just yet, but that if “everyone is adhering to guidelines and it's going well, then we're excited to get back to work.”

“We just need to feel absolutely confident that we can respect the health and safety of our guests before we can unlock that door,” Brand said.

In Erwin, Clarence’s Drive-In owner Teresa Collins said they’re also going to hold off on reopening, saying it’s “a little too soon.”

“We just felt like it was a little soon because the cases were still popping up and, to make our customers and our employees safer, we felt like we would just stick with the takeout for now,” Collins said. “I think we’re just going to hold off for a while and see how things go.”

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