St. Patrick’s Day parties interrupted by order closing bars; restaurant owners worry about impact

At Mullets on March 17, Iowans came out to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The threat of COVID-19 couldn’t stop St. Patrick’s Day bar patrons from decking out in shamrocks and green and celebrating the holiday Tuesday morning.

But an emergency declaration from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds about 10:15 a.m. halted partying plans for Iowans. She shut down all bars and dine-in restaurant services by noon in an emergency proclamation.

At Mullets in downtown Des Moines, people were drinking beers at the bar and finishing their breakfast hash browns before they would be forced to leave the restaurant by noon. Employees already locked the front door about 10:30 a.m., forcing several potential customers to turnaround back towards their cars.

“This is one of the biggest days for small businesses,” said Cindy Taft of Urbandale, who was eating at the restaurant. Every St. Patrick’s Day, Taft and a group of her friends stop by small businesses. “You’re messing with their livelihoods.”

The declaration closed bars, theaters, fitness centers, casinos and other recreational facilities beginning at noon on Tuesday, and required restaurants to shift their business to carry-out and delivery only, at least until March 31.

After Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the closure of restaurants and bars, Zombie Burger in downtown Des Moines posted notices on their doors and advised customers to keep distance between themselves. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The proclamation also prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people. “Social, community, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings and events of more than 10 people are hereby prohibited at all locations and venues, including but not limited to parades, festivals, conventions, and fundraisers. Planned large gatherings and events must be canceled or postponed until after termination of this disaster,” the proclamation states.

The timing of the governor’s declaration just a couple hours before lunch was a little “awkward” on Tuesday, but Paul Rottenberg, president of Orchestrate Hospitality said Reynolds made the right decision.

His company operates 14 service-industry businesses that rely on customer interactions, including Bubba, Django, Zombie Burger, Teddy Maroon’s, South Union Bakery, Malo and hotels in Johnston and Altoona.

Orchestrate Hospitality employs around 500 people in its restaurants alone. While Gateway Market and Zombie Burger will remain open delivery and take-out orders, the majority of employees will cease working and earning wages.

They will be allowed to use accrued vacation time before their unemployment kicks in, Rottenberg said.

“I’m stressed and concerned,” Rottenberg said. “It’s too early for me to know what it all means, except that it’s going to be a difficult time to get through for all of us.”

Chris Diebel, managing partner for Bubba’s and Teddy Maroon’s, said the industry needs direct stimulus such as Mitt Romney’s proposal to give all adults $1,000. Waiting for federal small business loans won’t work, he added.

“Our industry operates on very low margins,” Diebel said. He added that he hopes that the governor can push for changes in business interruption insurance, which don’t cover a virus outbreak.

Iowa’s bar and restaurant industry, which employs 150,000, may see 75,000 to 85,000 workers on unemployment, said Jessica Dunker of the Iowa Restaurant Association.

Dunker said she’s been talking to Reynolds about direct aid, tax breaks and assistance for workers to receive unemployment quickly. The governor has been supportive, she said.

Without strong state aid, 2,000 to 3,000 of Iowa’s restaurants and bars could permanently close when the coronavirus dissipates, she added.

“In the best of times, the margin is 5 percent and some are making $100 a day,” Dunker said about service-industry businesses. “They can’t hold on for long without aid. How do we give workers a place to return to when this is over? How do we keep people working?”

For several people at Mullets Tuesday morning, the governor’s declaration to close restaurants and bars felt like an overreach of what should be an “individual decision,” Taft said.

Multiple restaurant patrons said they felt like the risk of COVID-19 was being hyped by both the media and politicians, despite the Centers for Disease Control advising there is no vaccine to prevent coronavirus disease and the best preventative measure is to stay 6 feet away from other people.

But as restaurants close up shop and tape notices to their doors, Iowans are preparing to go at least a couple weeks without dining and drinking at their favorite bars.

“I’m going to go back to my house,” Taft said.