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With curfew and new alcohol restriction on the horizon, local restaurants brace for impact

SALISBURY — After a year of adapting to restrictions and limitations, local restaurants and bars will once again have to navigate new regulations through the end of 2020 and into the new year.

Starting today at 5 p.m., Gov. Roy Cooper’s 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew will go into effect. The governor is also implementing an earlier curfew for onsite alcohol consumption sales, moving up the current cutoff from 11 p.m. to 9 p.m. for bars and restaurants.

Cooper’s curfew is an attempt to stem the rising tide of positive COVID-19 cases seen across the state. On Thursday, North Carolina health officials said the state recorded its 13th straight day of record high hospitalizations due to the coronavirus. The curfew still allows people to leave their homes for work and for other necessities.

Mikey Wetzel, owner of Go Burrito and co-owner Water’s Edge, said restaurants must do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but he’s concerned that the new regulations will be “little death knells for parts of businesses.”

Since opening in 2013, Go Burrito has emerged as one of Salisbury’s most popular night spots and is known for its karaoke nights. Likewise, since opening this summer, Water’s Edge has become a place for diners to stay late and listen to live music over a few drinks.

Now, Wetzel is left wondering how to make up for lost sales that will result from the 10 p.m. curfew and the 9 p.m. cutoff on serving alcohol.

“If you take away alcohol sales from a lot of these full-service, sit down restaurants, a lot of people don’t want to go,” Wetzel said “When a restaurant may be struggling to stay open, it’s oftentimes alcohol sales that push them into a better realm.”

Wetzel said that food sales won’t be impacted nearly as much as sales on alcohol, which affects bartenders who rely on tips.

One remedy for the problem, Wetzel said, would be to lure customers out earlier with happy hours — except, discounting drinks for just a couple hours during the day isn’t permitted in North Carolina.

“Happy hour is against the law in North Carolina, which is additionally painful when you’re not allowed to sell alcohol after 9,” Wetzel said. “All the tools are taken out of our toolbox.”

Wetzel said that he has learned that it’s difficult to change customer patterns to encourage them to visit restaurants earlier.

“We hoped in the restaurant industry that customers would shift their habits, that now people would just go out a little earlier,” Wetzel said. “… What we saw in practice is that, instead of people coming out earlier, they’re just not coming out.”

The 9 p.m. cutoff on alcohol sales may hurt local restaurants, but it will also hurt the breweries who supply them with beer. Morgan Ridge Railwalk Brewery and Eatery owner Amie Baudoin said that Cooper’s new curfew will have implications for both their restaurant and beer distribution business.

“Not only is it affecting our front door and people coming in, we’re a brewery so half of our business is supported by beer sales because we distribute.” Baudoin said. “Anytime you cut a few hours out, it completely affects restaurants and bars.”

To adapt to the curfew, Morgan Ridge, which will close at 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m., will have musical performers start an hour earlier on the weekends and will begin delivering meals using two vans that are typically reserved for beer distribution. Those vans haven’t gotten as much use lately, Baudoin said, since many bars have been closed and restaurants have been timid on ordering beer.

Given the earlier curfew, Rowan County Chamber of Commerce President Elaine Spalding said she hopes more people will become “early-bird” diners at locally-owned restaurants.

Spalding said that she was “pleasantly surprised” that the Governor’s regulations weren’t more sweeping. However, she is still worried about businesses who will miss out on business that typically comes during the holiday season since Cooper’s curfew and alcohol cutoff extends through Jan 8.

“There’s college kids coming home and they want to get together with their buddies from high school and that’s probably the businesses that will be impacted most, the ones like City Tavern and Go Burrito,” Spalding said. 

Spalding said the Chamber of Commerce encourages businesses to follow the governor’s orders, which is what Wetzel said he plans to do. Wetzel said that he wants to be a “team player” and that he is still seeking clarification on the regulations so that he can operate his business in a way that is “customer-centric.”

As federal legislatures continue to work toward passing a COVID-19 economic relief package, it is unclear if the businesses impacted by the curfew should expect to receive federal help anytime soon.

Rep. Tedd Budd (R-13) spoke about government regulations on the house floor earlier this week while calling for top legislatures to take action to help small businesses.

“While many states and localities begin to make the same mistake of instituting massive shutdowns, small businesses have been left high and dry,” Budd said. “Imagine pouring everything you have, emotionally and financially, into an idea. Then you watch it grow and thrive, but through no fault of your own, it gets ruined because your local government shuts you down and the federal government refuses to help.”

Wetzel, Spalding and Baudoin said that they wanted to implore people to support local businesses.

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