Restaurant owners face unprecedented COVID challenges — even those who have been doing it for 45 years

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There is no playbook for restaurant owners in this COVID crisis.

And as the numbers continue to climb and the concern grows, they are faced with another round of tough decisions.

This feels a lot like the same song — second verse.

Back in March, restaurants across Georgia were forced to stop dine-in service. The resourceful ones quickly transitioned to take-out and drive-thru business.

Few traditional restaurants in Columbus did it better than Country’s Barbecue — a local institution since 1975. They have three locations — Mercury Drive, Broadway and North Columbus.

Back in late May, the dine-in business reopened. All three Country’s began serving customers inside. 

This week, owner Jim Morpeth has closed the Mercury Drive dining room  due to the COVID crisis. 

The 76-year-old Morpeth has seen a thing or two in nearly 50 years in the business. But he hasn’t seen anything like this.

“The other two are still open for dine-in right now,” Morpeth said. “You know, the way COVID is exploding again, I’ll be honest with you, I would not be surprised if all restaurants end up to-go only again. That wouldn’t surprise me.”

Like all restaurant owners, Morpeth is making critical business decisions day to day — sometimes hour to hour.

Morpeth has a doctorate in barbecue and business, but he hasn’t seen anything like this.

“Nothing has prepared me for this,” Morpeth said. “I’ll be honest with you. And I don’t think it’s just me. The industry as a whole. Everybody I talk to, they are like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ We have never seen anything like this in our lives.”

Since the COVID crisis started in March, Morpeth and others in his business have been dealing with curveballs from the front of the house to the back office.

“Think about it this way. Have you ever run a business where you had to file unemployment for everybody?” he said. “We had to file something like close to 200 unemployment claims every week for people that were laid off at the first of COVID. It put our office in disarray. It has put everything out of the norm.”

 And now as the cases rise in Muscogee County, they are having to make critical decisions.

“The positives all over town,” he said. “I am not going to name names of restaurants because it’s not fair to do that you really got to kind of look to find one that doesn’t have one positive right now. Or hasn’t been through one. It’s just everywhere.”

Now many of the COVID cases involve young people.

“Part of it is because young people just don’t feel it,” he said. “It’s not that they are bad. They’re young and they don’t understand. They don’t feel it. They have never seen this before.”

Then he thought about what he had just said, let out a little laugh and finished the thought.

“Well,” he said. “we haven’t either.”

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