Ever since stay-at-home restrictions were lifted in Minnesota, temporary restaurant closures make headlines nearly every week.
These restaurants are closing because of COVID-19 exposures, either from a staff member or customer. But the state doesn't require restaurants to close when facing an exposure. Regardless, many establishments believe the need to protect the public's safety outweighs their need to turn a profit.
Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar was one of Duluth's first to close because of an exposure. They learned an employee was sick with the virus just three days into its reopening, after being closed as required by state stay-at-home guidelines.
The decision to close their doors was an easy one, co-owner Derek Snyder said. Thankfully, he added, they were also in a comfortable financial position because they sought out federal and state loans and grants for coronavirus relief.
"We kind of just felt like (it was) the safest thing to do, not only for the customers, but for our own staff and our own families," Snyder said.
The Canal Park restaurant was nervous to go public with its closure decision. "Are people just going to think that we're this dirty, diseased restaurant with COVID-19?" Snyder said.
They ultimately decided that being "honest (was) the best way to go about this," he said.
With the decision to go public underway, they also had to start conducting their own contact tracing.
They contacted 200 people who had dined at their restaurant during the three days they were open, and all were receptive and thankful to know they were possibly exposed to the virus, Snyder said.
"I think we (made) the right moves to make the customers happy, and we saw that response on social media and .... from the staff. We're really thankful," he said.
The restaurant also took on a major sanitization responsibility during this time, and turned to Static Clean for help.
Using electrostatic technology, the Duluth-based service says it can effectively sanitize an entire business in just a few hours, according to owner Bernard McCarthy.
Most surfaces are naturally negatively charged, and Static Clean's machines spray a positively charged mist onto surfaces, which it clings to and coats.
McCarthy previously offered the service as part of his junk removal business. Once the pandemic hit, they began offering it as a standalone service, and they now sanitize five to 10 business weekly, he said.
Most of Static Clean's service requests are for businesses that had a known COVID-19 exposure, whether from an employee or customer. These calls require Static Clean staff to gear up, head to toe, in personal protective equipment.
In addition to sanitizing the businesses, McCarthy said this service also add another level of "legitimacy" to a business' handling of an exposure, which increases customer confidence in the business.
Only around one-fourth of Static Clean's service requests are for businesses, including Lake Avenue, that proactively sanitizing their space. "(This) really gives their customers and employees that peace of mind," McCarthy said.
Sir Benedict's Tavern on the Lake co-owner Josh Stotts knew a COVID-19 exposure wasn't a far-fetched possibility.
One Tuesday morning earlier this summer, Stotts learned an employee was "really sick." He gathered his team, and they decided to close the London Road restaurant and bar before the sick employee had even tested positive for COVID-19.
The team considered staying open until the employee received a positive test result. However, like Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar, they decided it was too great of a risk — not only to their employees and families, but also to the public.
"We just felt that it was better for our team just to be able to go home and self monitor," he said. Many of his employees are older and have families, causing concerns for him and many on his team if they were to contract the virus.
Business considerations also went into the decision. They were planning to order food for their weekend service, but risked spoiling that entire order if they ended up having to close, Stotts said.
He said his team was able to weather the closure, as he continued paying them. He also utilized staff to help sanitize the restaurant, during which they power-washed, repainted and heavily sanitized furniture and high-touch surfaces.
Grandma's Saloon & Grill and Little Angie's Cantina both closed due to employees testing positive in July.
Like the others, ownership of the Canal Park establishments knew being transparent was crucial to ensuring customers would return after their temporary closures.
"That really, I think, aids in getting customers back. They just want to know that you're not trying to pull the wool over their eyes," Tony Boen, director of operations, said.
The closures caused a "pretty bad" financial hit to the company, Boen said. Restaurants have numerous major fixed costs, like electricity, that they continued paying, even without dine-in service.
During their shutdown, he said they worked directly with the state health department to determine their closure length and which employees should quarantine.
It's difficult, detailed work that requires close tracking of employees' schedules and testing, he said. Regardless, it's work they'll continue to do as "we do not want to be the cause of any of our guests or employees contracting this virus," he said.
Even with 15 pages of restaurant industry safety guidelines released by the state, both Stotts and Snyder said their restaurants didn't have enough guidance to know the best way to conduct business when navigating a COVID-19 exposure.
Snyder said he turned to a Southern comfort-food restaurant in the Twin Cities for advice, as no other Duluth restaurant had closed due to an exposure yet.
"(Guidelines) change all the time and it's scary for everybody," Snyder said. "It's a whole new world."
For Sir Ben's, Stotts turned to his team for guidance and decided staying open wasn't worth the risk.
And since its reopening, Sir Ben's has consistent business.
"Duluth is a very supportive community," Stotts said.
Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar has also been busy since its reopening. They're only open four days a week, and are planning to add another day of operation when they hire a few more staff members, Snyder said.
"We want to be a part of somehow making the city recover from the debt that we're in now," he said. "We want to make sure that we're doing our part, but doing it safely."