Bonfire

Chloe Cribb, an employee at Bonfire in Conway, wipes down a table at the restaurant on Thursday, July 30, 2020. Local restaurants such as Bonfire must follow new rules starting Monday (Aug. 3) due to a statewide mandate issued by South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Henry McMaster converted a list of recommendations for restaurants into a statewide mandate this week as part of an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

For some Grand Strand restaurateurs, the change means business as usual. They were already following those guidelines before the governor announced his decision, which takes effect Monday.

“For us personally, it’s not really going to change much,” said Jocelyn Pinkham, a front of house manager at J Peters Grill & Bar in Carolina Forest. “We’re already following what’s recommended.”

The business has limited dine-in occupancy to 50% and kept fewer chairs at the bar.

The state guidelines, first established by a McMaster panel, had been strongly advised until now.

Among the rules:

• Dine-in service must be limited to no more than 50% of the certificate of occupancy issued by the fire marshal.

• Employees and customers are required to wear face masks/coverings (except when eating and drinking).

• Tables must be spaced to keep diners at least six feet apart, and no more than eight customers should be seated at a table unless they’re from the same family.

• Standing or congregating in a restaurant’s bar area isn’t allowed. Businesses that possess a state permit to sell alcohol are subject to the restrictions, officials said.

A full list of the rules can be found by clicking here.

“These limited restrictions are temporary, they are measured and they are targeted towards what we know works,” McMaster said in a statement. “These measures give South Carolina the best chance to slow the spread of the virus without shutting down the state’s economy — which we cannot and will not do — as many continue to call for.”

The regulations restaurants have faced this year have left multiple owners frustrated. Those rules included a weeks-long ban on on-premises dining that the governor instituted in mid-March.

While restauranteurs acknowledge the reality of the pandemic, some feel they have been unfairly targeted when it comes to constraints.

“I just hate the fact restaurants are picked on during this whole process,” said Darren Smith, owner of the Bonfire and Rivertown Bistro restaurants in downtown Conway, which have also been following the recommendations.

While people can crowd a grocery store, he said, restaurants have been expected — and commanded — to limit crowds.

“It’s a hard, strange time,” he said.

Those who enter one of his restaurants have access to a sanitizing station, are seated by a hostess, able to practice social distancing and sit at dining areas that are constantly cleaned.

Meanwhile, someone at a hardware store, for example, could pick up a product while browsing items and put it back without it being sanitized.

The regulations have piled on to what’s already a pressing time for area restaurants, said Weldon Boyd, who owns Buoys on the Boulevard in North Myrtle Beach.

“It’s just pouring salt in the wound,” he said.

He also questioned their legality and if they are constitutional.

Like Smith, he also believes restaurants have been singled out.

“I feel like we’re going backwards,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Boyd made headlines a few months ago when he allowed on-premises dining outside, defying the governor’s order that has since expired. 

Boyd is critical of the punishment one might face for violating the new rules. McMaster said a violation could result in a misdemeanor charge.

“For them to make this a crime and a misdemeanor is a joke,” he said. “I’ve already got enough stress on me. It’s just an absolute joke. You’re policing … people for what?”

Many restaurants along the Grand Strand have already had rules imposed due to face mask policies implemented in communities such as Myrtle Beach, Conway and unincorporated Horry County.

While a mask mandate was passed in North Myrtle Beach as well, Boyd said it is currently optional for his customers and 72 employees to wear one, and he stressed he does not wish to police citizens.

In spite of the virus, Boyd said folks in the community have shown their support by patronizing the business and endorsed having a choice to wear a mask.

He estimated the restaurant has seen close to 17,000 people this month, adding that on a weekend, there could be anywhere from 700-800 diners.

Boyd said that though Buoys doesn’t impose rules, the business wants customers to feel comfortable. If a patron asks for a server to wear one, for example, the worker does. The same goes for if a person wants food delivered curbside.

“We understand people’s fear,” Boyd said, “but we’re not going to live in it.”

Looking forward, he’s on the fence about how to go about things.

“Now, I’ll be a criminal if I don’t [follow the rules],” he said.

He said that recently, a family of nine, including kids, walked to the restaurant from a nearby resort to dine outside. Rain began to fall, and Boyd said he let them come inside.

That incident, he said, resulted in him receiving a court summons, being charged under a looting/congregation statute.

“This is all just a joke,” he said. “What did I do wrong?”

He planned to brief the staff this weekend on what to do next.

“We’re trying to save the little bit left of our season and you just took us back two steps,” he said of the governor’s announcement. “What happened to letting the people decide?”

For now, local businesses as a whole are rolling with the punches.

“Luckily, we’re getting by,” Smith said of his establishments allowing indoor dining at 50% occupancy.

He noted, though, that some restaurants won’t be able to keep their doors open because of the virus.

“Restaurants will suffer, and restaurants will close,” he said. “I’m hopefully going to fight through this. I know that plenty won’t be able to.”

Of course, sales at Bonfire and Bistro have slowed because of the coronavirus outbreak, just like a lot of other places.

“It’s been terrible,” Smith said, adding that media reports can contribute to restaurants losing out on sales.

“We’re having to combat that,” he said.

Bistro in particular might lose out on business from an older, more affluent crowd choosing not to dine there.

Still, there’s comfort knowing that other establishments in the industry are also dealing with the same challenges.

Fortunately, Smith owns both of the buildings that house his businesses, but he noted he still has bills and mortgage payments to pay.

And in J Peters’ case, business has picked up in recent weeks.

Pinkham said customers have realized the restaurant is following different guidelines, and those steps have led to folks being more comfortable. For the most part, she said, customers have also adhered to the rules.

“The staff has been great,” she said. “They want to be here.”

It can be difficult sporting a mask throughout the day, but she said that’s been a transition.

But, Pinkham added, the grill will do what it must to continue operating.

“We’re just trying to do our best so we can stay open,” she said.

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