ST. LOUIS — The rise in COVID-19 cases in the St. Louis area has been too much to ignore for city and county leaders, who’ve taken steps to limit the spread.
Businesses in St. Louis County are limited to 25% occupancy. Establishments in St. Louis could be forced to close for two weeks if they ignore public health orders, like enforcing the mask mandate and not following social distancing standards.
Local restaurants are taking note as well. Despite the desire for a taste of normalcy, several well-known establishments have voluntarily closed their dining rooms and patios – that includes popular bar Narwhal’s.
“The reality was that the pandemic and the surge in cases was as prevalent as ever. And we just felt that, you know, we were contributing to that in a way,” explained Narwhal’s co-owner Brad Merten during an interview for 5 On Your Side's Abby Eats St. Louis podcast.
The frozen cocktail oasis with locations in Midtown and St. Charles quickly adapted to the curbside model when dining rooms were forced to close back in March. The Narwhal’s team even put together quarantine care packages, teaming up with other local small businesses like Crispy Edge and Hot Box Cookies.
The care packages and curbside cocktails were a hit. But as restaurants reopened, the demand for drinks to-go dried up, the novelty wore off. Merten said sales took a hit and the pressure was on to open the bar’s dining rooms and patios.
“Soon, we kind of felt like we were, in a way, kind of odd man out and the one's still doing curbside and not opening,” Merten explained. “So, I felt like we kind of put ourselves in a position where we weren't really on a level playing field while we were voluntarily decided to keep doing curbside. So, we made the decision to open our dining room – and it's something we absolutely want to do.”
The Narwhal’s patios were bustling again – at a safe distance and with masks required. Merten said they were able to make it work, doing everything they could do keep their employees and customers safe, while serving up a bit of normalcy.
Those changes though, as well as that normalcy, turned out to be the problem.
“It kind of came to the point where sometime on Friday, Saturday night, the place isn't as full as it would normally be again. We're spacing things out. We're making people wear masks. But it's, it felt almost a little bit too normal inside. And I don't think this is necessarily the time to feel that normal,” Merten said. “And I wish it could. But again, you can't ignore what's actually happening.”
While some establishments are being forced to temporarily close their doors for being a little too “normal” inside, the team at Narwhal’s voluntarily shifted back to the curbside-only model, even though they were following all the rules.
“It was kind of more of a proactive approach and something that we just felt like was the right move, even though it wasn't forced on us,” Merten explained.
To their knowledge, no Narwhal’s employees or customers tested positive. They didn’t have to scale back their own reopening plan.
“It just seemed that if we're truthfully trying to do the safest thing possible for ourselves, for our customers, for our employees, it's like curbside is that answer while still being able to maintain and serve our customers,” Merten said.
He added that the lack of consistency in health code requirements among local jurisdictions isn’t helping, especially in St. Charles County where masks aren’t required and restrictions are looser. He said the reopening plan in that county was largely left up to local businesses.
“It doesn't provide uniformity or consistency or clear expectations,” he said.
Merten added that Narwhal’s wasn’t operating on a level playing field.
“If we are trying to abide by the rules and do everything humanly possible to provide a safe environment. But, you know, some other restaurants in the area are not, it makes people question like, well, ‘Why are they acting like this?’ And, you know, ‘We're able to do this over there,’ Merten explained, saying it makes the safety precautions they’re trying to take even harder to manage.
“You get a little more eye rolls and huffing and puffing. If it was something that was at least mandated, it could be like, hey, this is what everyone is doing. This is how, you know, what we have to do to operate and provide a safe environment. And again, it at least creates a level playing field.”
Merten said at the end of the day, they just want to be safe for their employees, customers and the communities his bars serve.
“If we're in a position where we felt it was necessary to close our doors and did back in March, April, if it's equally as bad – if not worse – now, why should we feel differently today?” he said, defending the decision to re-close the dining rooms. “We want to get through this.”
Merten said he knows closing two dining rooms won’t solve the COVID-19 problems in St. Louis and St. Charles County, but putting their best food forward was the least they could do.
“We've been trying to do the right thing that we feel is right because nobody has the right answers, but we just kind of have to do what we feel is the safest thing for ourselves, our employees,” he said. “And at this time, it just seems that sticking to curbside is the most viable option at least at this point with how things stand.”
This story is a companion piece to the Abby Eats St. Louis podcast episode called "It felt almost a little bit too normal inside". Hear more from the Merten and get the latest St. Louis area food news and updates on the latest episode. Abby Eats St. Louis is available for free on all major podcast platforms.