Public health says restaurants can open at 75% capacity; Restaurant owners say most won’t be able to

MADISON, Wis. — People who have long awaited the opportunity dine in at their favorite restaurants were excited when Public Health announced this week that restaurants can open at 75% capacity starting next Wednesday.  But restaurants won’t be as prepared as their customers.

“Even though the capacity may have risen, the big limiting factor for restaurants is going to be what their facility holds,” said President and CEO of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association Kristine Hillmer.

Hillmer said because the order still requires restaurants to maintain six feet of social distancing between tables, the new order won’t do much for many restaurants.

This is the case for co-owner of Lucille and Merchant, Joshua Berkson.

“As long as we maintain that social distancing, 75% will not do anything for us in terms of opening up for occupancy,” Berkson said. “That’s true for every restaurant that I know of.”

Berkson said his restaurants still haven’t opened beyond 25% capacity because he doesn’t have the space for it. Owner of Salvatore’s Tomato Pies, Patrick DePula, is in the same boat.

“Every time there’s a new order, people just assume that we are able to accommodate that stuff,” DePula said. “We do the best that we can because we certainly want to see as many people as we can, but we are going to end up in  a situation where we are probably going to have to turn people away.”

Restaurant owners agree that until social distancing requirements are lessened from the six-foot rule, no public health order will really make a difference.

Restaurants are also still having a tough time finding people to hire to accommodate more customers.

“It’s a call we get daily from restaurateurs: ‘Do you have any recommendations on where we can find staff?'” Hillmer said.

A number of factors play into why it’s so difficult for many restaurants to find people to hire. Hillmer said the reasons range from former staff members choosing stay on unemployment, those who can’t return to work because their children are still learning at home, and those who were laid off at the start of the pandemic who sought employment elsewhere with higher pay.

Marc LaPierre who owns Clock’d works to help restaurants fill their openings.

“Employers need to act quickly to get candidates and need to pay a living wage as well in order to attract candidates and keep employees,” LaPierre said.

According to LaPierre, on average, it takes about 30 to 45 days to get people hired. With restaurants expecting more customers as early as next week, many won’t be able to meet the demands. Until they can manage, they’re asking all customers to be patient with them.

“We are all in the industry doing the best that we can do accommodate as many people as we can,” DePula said.