Richmond’s best-known shopping and dining destination remained a shell of itself Friday.
Few were out and about in Carytown on Friday around lunchtime. Parking was abundant at public lots. Closed signs remained posted on doors of darkened storefronts. Patios, normally teeming during peak lunch hours, sat empty. With little in the way of foot traffic, buskers and beggars were likewise absent.
The eerie stillness signaled another slow day on what would have been the beginning of less stringent restrictions had Richmond entered Phase One on the initial timeline set by Gov. Ralph Northam. Instead, the first phase of reopening during the coronavirus pandemic is deferred at least two weeks.
That’s OK by Dominic Pham, who runs Pho Luca’s with his wife, Lucie Nguyen. The couple’s new restaurant, which opened in December, has furloughed staff and seen business plunge 80% since March. Takeout orders have helped them pay their rent, but no more than that, he said.
Despite the losses, Pham said he agreed with Mayor Levar Stoney’s request for a slower reopening than elsewhere around the region because Pham believes it will keep people safer.
“Some of the states that have reopened too soon, they’ve seen the cases spike,” he said. “We don’t want that. … I’m not concerned about our finances. I’m more concerned about the well-being of all of our associates.”
Next door, employees at Chop Suey Books coordinated pickups for customers who have been unable to peruse the beloved shop since it closed its doors to the public in early March.
The store is handling transactions online or over the phone, and it will stay that way for the foreseeable future, regardless of what state or local officials say, owner Ward Tefft said.
“We’re not basing it on what politicians are telling us. We’re looking at what scientists are telling us and how we actually feel,” Tefft said. “We’ll go along with the timeline of when we feel safe and when we feel like our customers will be safe. Personally, how I feel, that’s not going to be until we have a vaccine or until it somehow goes away.”
Rob Martin and his mom spent Thursday disinfecting the tables on the front and back patios at his Manchester restaurant, Ironclad Sports Bar and Grill. His mom even brought a tape measure to ensure the three tables out back and nine in front were at least 6 feet apart.
“We’d been trying to conserve our finances and all the last few weeks. Then Northam said y’all can open up and have a few customers on the patio. We spent like $1,500 [Thursday]; we were hoping to make [it] back this weekend,” Martin said. “Now it’s product just sitting there that we’re not using.”
Martin may have an opportunity to do something with that product, though. Stoney announced Friday afternoon on Twitter that restaurants can take their perishable food and donate it to Feed More, which includes the Central Virginia Food Bank, Meals on Wheels and the Community Kitchen, through the weekend. With an invoice, restaurants can be reimbursed for items such as meat and produce when taking them to Feed More’s location at 1415 Rhoadmiller St. until Sunday afternoon.
“You’ve kinda got to play the hand you’re dealt. You walk outside, you look around and you see people going to a lot of other stores, and it’s like, ‘Why not me?’” Martin said.
At Gus’ Bar and Grill on 2701 W. Broad St., owner Spiros Flemotomos was looking forward to opening for the first time since the restaurant closed its doors in March. The restaurant has a small patio that it was ready to use under the Phase One restrictions.
Flemotomos called back many of his staff, who had been collecting unemployment, to clean the restaurant and get it ready for service. He ordered gloves and masks and was eager to get back to business. But then, late Thursday, the word came down that Richmond wouldn’t reopen after all.
“I feel 50/50 about it, I won’t lie,” Flemotomos said. “I understand that the government needs to protect the people. I’m not against that at all. But when they tell us, ‘You can open your outdoor patio’ and we spend all this time and money doing that, getting it ready, you can’t wait 11 hours [to call it off]. That’s not right.”
Flemotomos said that Gus’ has lost around $160,000 to $180,000 being closed for two months. Being a sports bar on Broad Street, Gus’ sees its busiest times during March Madness and the NBA season. And now their busy season has passed them by.
“I feel bad for my bartenders. That’s when they make their money. In the summer, it slows down, there’s no sports. This is when they make their money for the dry months,” Flemotomos said.
He said that “maybe it was a smart decision for Stoney” to ask for the delay. “Maybe this way more people won’t get sick,” he said. But for businesses that are hurting due to closures, he felt the delay could have been handled better.
“I don’t dislike the decision,” but the timing could have been improved, he said.
Instead of opening its patio, Gus’ Bar and Grill will be offering takeout and curbside service, along with beer and wine to go.
At Latitude Seafood Co. at Stony Point Fashion Park, owner Kevin Grubbs said he’s spent the last two weeks preparing to open. The restaurant purchased masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.
“We spent a lot of time getting ready. And then, within 12 hours, we’re told ‘No.’ You can’t give business owners 12 hours’ notice,” Grubbs said. “I have perishable food. I have staff ready to work.”
He added, “I’m not a doctor. I don’t know if we should close the economy or not. But you have to give us more notice than 12 hours.”
Latitude Seafood has another location in Midlothian at Westchester Commons that was allowed to open on Friday. Grubbs was able to divert much of the perishable inventory to that location.
He wonders if the delay will change anyone’s plans.
“I don’t think it’s going to save the world. I think it’s just going to push people to go to Henrico, Chesterfield and the surrounding counties,” he said.
The Westchester location of Latitude is about a dozen miles away from the Stony Point location. Grubbs said he expects to see many of the people who would have gone to the Stony Point location at the Westchester location.
“I think people want to get out of their house. They’re still going to go out and be just as much at risk as they would have been here. To close one county in the middle of others that are open, that doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
Since Latitude shut its doors in March, the restaurant has had to furlough 46 employees at Stony Point and 90 employees total.
The Stony Point location has a bigger patio and can seat 60 people at 50%. The Westchester location is smaller, able to seat 40 people, but Grubbs said they’ll be taking advantage of the new ABC law that will allow them to seat customers outside of the patio.
The Westchester location’s patio is now open for service and both locations will continue to offer takeout, curbside service and delivery through GrubHub and other services.
Legend Brewing Co. in Manchester is relieved to have two more weeks to prepare for service.
Legend has a big deck with a view of the Richmond skyline and can seat up to 100 to 120 people at 50% capacity. It was staffed and ready to open on Friday.
“We took out every other table. We had staff and cooks ready to go,” said Dani Falter, bar and hospitality manager. “But personally, I’m relieved. I’m glad that the mayor petitioned for Richmond to delay its opening. I think it was a smart move.”
She mentioned the city’s “percent positive” rate for COVID-19 and how it hasn’t been going down.
“Personally, I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “Northam made it very clear that reopening was contingent on lowered exposure and lowered numbers.”
She said that she was worried the restaurant would have been a little understaffed, since some of the servers weren’t ready to come back this weekend.
“This way, we can prepare a little bit more. We’re planning to have a scaled-down menu. And with Phase One, you have to have disposable menus. Every table gets a menu. That’s a lot of paper. Two weeks will definitely give us more time to prepare.”
In the meantime, she said Legend has continued to see a brisk business at the covered beer garden that’s open daily where staffers sell beer and kegs to go, as well as merchandise and the full menu for takeout.