This Restaurant Owner Decided Not to Reopen for Dine-in. Here’s Why She Says She Made the Right Choice.

Malee's owner Deirdre wearing mask and gloves packing bags

By Jessica Swarner

June 22, 2020

“I just couldn’t see the value of taking my customers’ lives or my staff’s lives for granted.”

When Gov. Doug Ducey first allowed restaurants to reopen dine-in areas May 11, the owners of The Shop brewery in Tempe took a pause to assess the situation. 

Instead of reopening the tasting room or patio where they often host food trucks, they decided to continue with takeout-only for a bit longer. They reopened their patio at the end of May but closed it again soon after, due to Ducey’s statewide curfew in light of the protests against racial injustice. 

When the time came around to try again, one of their fears came true–an employee reported they had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Dylan DeMiguel, The Shop’s director of sales, told The Copper Courier that the bar then shut down all operations for two weeks from the date the employee had last been on site. The brewery restarted grab-n-go options Thursday, but the patio will stay closed. 

“It’s a tough situation,” DeMiguel said. “I don’t really have any good answers.”

“We’re unsure what the spike means for today, tomorrow, next week and the week after,” he added. 

The Shop was one of several Phoenix-area bars and restaurants that ended up closing or limiting operations in recent weeks due to employees testing positive. Chelsea’s Kitchen, Hash Kitchen, The Porch, and Zipps Sports Grill’s Arcadia location are among the others. 

A Proactive Approach

Some restaurant owners have said they read the tea leaves and decided to proactively close gathering spaces before any staff have tested positive. 

Chef Tommy D’Ambrosio of Aioli Gourmet Burgers in Phoenix said he had reopened his dining room when Ducey allowed it, but has since gone back to just takeout and delivery.  

“We have not only our customers to worry about, but also our employees,” D’Ambrosio said. “And as business owners, we felt that we were responsible for their well-being.” 

The chef also said that he and his co-owners grew up in Phoenix, and they feel protective of the area and its residents.  

“Our parents still live in the neighborhood today,” he said. “Lots of friends and family are still around, and we are a family kind of neighborhood establishment.” 

“We saw that the numbers kept rising and rising, and we said ‘Well, what can we do?’” he added. 

RELATED: Family Says Dad Would Still Be Alive If Casino Hadn’t Reopened

Ben Galaz, owner of BK Carne Asada and Hot Dogs in Tucson, went through a similar thought process when he decided to re-close his dining rooms, despite not having any employees become infected.

“We are concerned because we are seeing an increase of positives of COVID in the community,” he told The Copper Courier. “And based on that, I think because there are too many people getting together in one spot. For the safety of our customers and for the safety of our employees, we made the decision to close down the dining area.” 

Galaz said his main concern was for the large number of people that would line up outside of their restaurants, waiting to be let in because they were only operating at half capacity. 

“It was really hard for us to control that, because [only] some of them, they are wearing masks, some of them, they are not wearing the mask properly,” he said. 

Galaz said people close to him have made him realize just how serious COVID-19 is. 

“I know a friend of mine that his sister passed away [Wednesday],” he said. “And now I see people that I know that they have a cousin or they have a friend that gets really sick, so I think this is too serious for the community.” 

Waiting Out the Spike

For some restaurant owners, the spike is less concerning for their business because they didn’t attempt to reopen dining rooms at all. 

Deirdre Pain, owner of Malee’s Thai Bistro in Scottsdale, has kept her dining areas closed since mid-March, before Ducey enacted his stay-at-home order at the end of the month. 

When given the opportunity to reopen two months later, Pain said it just didn’t seem like the time was right. 

“All I saw were numbers going up. I didn’t see numbers going down,” she told The Copper Courier. “And I made the decision that I wasn’t going to open up until the numbers started going down in Arizona.”

Pain, whose daughter has cancer and is immunosuppressed, and therefore at elevated risk for COVID-19, said she doesn’t think people are taking the disease seriously enough. 

“I just couldn’t see the value of taking my customers’ lives, or my staff’s lives … for granted,” she said. 

Throughout her decision-making process, Pain said she has received a “mind-blowing” number of responses in support of her cautious approach.  

“It just reinforced that I’m doing the right thing,” she said. “I’d like to be making more money of course, but you know what? I can have all the money in the world, but if I don’t have my health it doesn’t matter. To me, it was a pretty easy decision.” 

A Controversial Strategy

The governor’s decision to begin reopening businesses in early May was a controversial one. Some public health experts contended that the state was not yet meeting White House criteria to begin the reopening process, including seeing a two-week downward trend in cases. 

While other states that began reopening later are seeing cases slow, Arizona is one of a handful seeing exploding numbers in recent weeks, including a new daily record Friday of 3,246 cases. 

The state has also seen record hospitalizations, ICU bed usage, ventilator usage, and emergency room visits for COVID-19 in recent weeks. The state asked hospitals to “fully activate” their emergency plans June 6. 

The governor has refused to implement a statewide order requiring people to wear masks when out in public as other states have done. And despite a wave of calls to allow local officials to implement these mandates, Ducey held off handing over this power until Wednesday. Since then, multiple cities and towns have acted fast to put mask-wearing requirements in place. 

Arizonans have expressed concerns that Ducey and other officials have not been firm enough on encouraging and enforcing social distancing guidelines. 

Despite the spike in cases, the state is preparing for a mass gathering this next week–President Donald Trump will hold a rally at a Phoenix church with the capacity for over 22,000 people. 

It’s unclear how the city’s new mask mandate, approved Friday, will affect the event.

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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