CORONAVIRUS

Cedar Rapids asks bars, restaurants to close on St. Patrick's Day, limit patron activity going forward

Jason Wilkerson (left) and Casey Burns talk with a regular customer who called in an order for gift cards at Local Craft
Jason Wilkerson (left) and Casey Burns talk with a regular customer who called in an order for gift cards at Local Craft Ale House in Cedar Rapids on Monday, March 16, 2020. Owner Jason Wilkerson decided to go to curbside to-go orders and growler fills in an effort to prevent spread of the coronavirus. Employees wear fresh gloves for each customer order. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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On Monday afternoon, the city of Cedar Rapids asked all Cedar Rapids bars and restaurants to close for St. Patrick’s Day and provided guidelines for limiting patron activity for the time being in an effort to keep coronavirus from spreading.

“Based on health advice related to the spread of COVID-19, city officials believe allowing normal St. Patrick’s Day activity will cause a public safety hazard,” a statement from the city said.

Beginning immediately, the city said bars and restaurants also should adhere to these guidelines:

• No more than 25 people may be present at the same time. City spokeswoman Maria Johnson later said the number should be 10 people, based on guidelines released by President Donald Trump’s administration after the Cedar Rapids statement was sent out.

• Bar seating is suspended.

• Standing patrons should not be served.

• Individual tables may not seat more than six people.

• Occupied tables and booths must be separated by at least six feet.

• Waiting patrons should not congregate in lobby/waiting areas or outside entrances.

• Encourage carryout and delivery food orders.

The city is encouraging residents to order delivery, carryout food or use drive-through services to avoid crowds dining in at restaurants.

At a news conference Monday, Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said there would not be enforcement of the recommendations.

“No city in Iowa has the ability to close bars or restaurants ...,” he said. “We know it’s a hardship, but the risk is so great, we hope they will voluntarily comply with this.”

He also encouraged people to only frequent businesses that follow the guidelines.

“Those are the restaurants that really care about the community to do the right thing,” Hart said.

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Asked if the city would consider a curfew, he said the main purpose of such restrictions are to keep people out of bars late at night, and he hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

“If they’re not working, we’d have to revisit that,” he said. “But a curfew seems like a very drastic step.”

For many Cedar Rapids bars, St. Patrick’s Day is one of the biggest days of business of the year.

“St. Patrick’s Day would have been the busiest day we’ve ever had. I was projecting $12,00 to $15,000 in sales tomorrow,” said Jason Wilkerson, owner of the Local Craft Ale House, a restaurant at 4001 Center Point Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids.

He opened last March and was hoping the coming weeks would be dedicated to celebrating that anniversary. Instead, he’s wondering how long he’ll be able to stay open.

He was taking action even before Monday’s announcement, however.

Wilkerson said he couldn’t sleep Sunday night, as he worried about the coronavirus and how it would affect his business.

“Around 4 a.m., I finally decided I was prepared to make the best decision for the public,” he said Monday. “It’s not dollars for my pocket, it’s dollars for my servers, the cooks, the rent, the utilities.

“But no amount of sales was going to justify potentially having a packed house and then finding out later people were sick and potentially spreading that virus.”

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He announced on Facebook the restaurant would switch from sit-down service to dining out only. Starting Monday, he took orders over the phone and his staff brought them out to people’s cars. They also filled growlers with beer for people to take to go.

“It’s not mandated we go to curbside, it’s a choice I’ve made. It’s something where I want to be able to live with my decision,” Wilkerson said.

“It’s definitely an emotional time for us here right now. The people who come here are not just our customers, they’re our friends.”

He said his goal is to be able to continue providing a paycheck for his handful of full-time staff for as long as possible and to keep the rent paid.

“This is their livelihood. This was an emotional decision, and it’s not easy,” he said.

The guidance in Cedar Rapids comes as bars and restaurants have been ordered closed to dine-in business in states including Illinois, Michigan and Washington, in New York City and elsewhere.

Comments: (319) 855-2392; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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