How do you enforce social distancing? Restaurant owners say it’s not easy

Nearly one week into the phased reopening that has allowed restaurants to resume limited table service and nonessential retailers to welcome customers back to their stores, establishment owners are dealing with two problems they didn’t necessarily anticipate: the challenge of encouraging social distancing among their patrons and a labor shortage.

For restaurants that serve alcohol and tend to be popular gathering spots, the social distancing issue has been particularly tricky to navigate. Business owners are, naturally, glad customers are coming back but find themselves in an uncomfortable position when those customers are either careless or cavalier in their disregard for safety protocols.

“It really puts the business owner in a difficult situation,” says Neil Hendricks, who owns Zippy’s near the Perkins Road Overpass. “They’ve given us no way to enforce this except to say we have to enforce it. So we try to just tell people, ask them nicely, to spread out. But it’s very difficult. We’re just doing the best we can.”

Though officials maintain that Baton Rouge residents are following the rules, the reality, according to local business owners is that people are tired of being cooped up at home and some are just done with the coronavirus crisis, whether the public health threat is over or not.

“Our customers are way over it and are very vocal about it,” says one local restaurateur, who asked not to be identified. “They’re frustrated we can’t seat them, frustrated we can’t take more reservations and 95 percent of them are not wearing masks. They’re kind about it. They’re not frustrated at us. They are just frustrated.”

Mestizo’s owner Jim Urdiales hasn’t experienced that much angst among his customers but says he, too, has had to remind patrons even waiting to pick up takeout orders to distance themselves.

“People are just desperate to be out,” says Urdiales, who had to ask customers lined up on Cinco de Mayo to spread out. “They were outside and we had signs and everything but people are just ready to get out. That’s the whole thing.”  

Business owners shared their concerns Wednesday on a conference call of Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s Restart BTR task force meeting. Assistant CAO Veneeth Iyengar acknowledges enforcing social distancing is a challenge, particularly for restaurants. But he says he is hopeful the situation will work itself out over time.

“At City Hall we make it a requirement for people to wear a face covering to come in but it’s tough to do that as a restaurant,” he says. “Could it be done? Yeah, but it’s tough so I think the next couple of weeks will be critical. If we continue to see progress then we’ll see what happens at that point.   

In the meantime, local business owners say they’re also dealing with a labor shortage because many of their former employees, laid off during the shutdown, are making more on unemployment than they were waiting tables or working in the kitchen.

“We were facing a labor shortage before the shutdown,” Urdiales says . “Now, it’s worse. We couldn’t have opened at 100% capacity if we’d wanted to.”

BLDG 5, which opened in late 2019, is also struggling to rehire workers.

“The unemployment is killing us,” says owner Misti Broussard. “Nobody wants to come back to work.”

Other small businesses outside of the restaurant sector are experiencing a similar problem. The Royal Standard has been able to reopen all five of its locations, but they’re not all fully staffed.

‘We’re having trouble getting people to come back,” owner Mark Peirce says. “I know we’re not the only ones saying that.” 

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