Coronavirus fears are keeping Utahns home, hurting sales at local restaurants and businesses

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Raising a glass of green beer in support of small business, Marc and Angie Milner, from left, and Brandon and Crystal Walker play a round of darts at Bewilder Brewing Co. in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 14, 2020, on the day the St. Patrick's Day Parade would have brought much more business. The restaurant industry has been significantly affected by social distancing and coronavirus concerns.

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First, they went skiing in Summit County. The next morning, they were out target shooting.

By Saturday afternoon, the five friends were tipping back beers at Fisher Brewing Co. in Salt Lake City, unfazed by a global coronavirus pandemic and advice from officials to practice social distancing to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

They were in town for Brandon Frenzel’s bachelor party — the Los Angeles man will be married in June — and fears of coronavirus weren’t slowing them down. “We’re going to carry on as usual,” Frenzel said, surrounded by friends at a corner table. “And wash our hands a lot.”

The group joked about COVID-19 and chatted about how their jobs have given them the option to work from home. They had a slight concern that their flights might be canceled Sunday, but laughed it off — if they couldn’t fly, they would just rent a car and extend the bachelor party with a drive to California and a stop to Las Vegas along the way.

But while this group wasn’t panicking, local restaurants and breweries say their businesses have been hit hard by coronavirus fears and people opting to stay at home rather than go out.

Business has been down about 30% in recent weeks, said Jeremy Ford, director of operations for Toscano, Garage Grill and Salt Flats Spirits and Brewery.

“I thought we’d drop by 50%,” he said Saturday. “We haven’t yet, but time will tell. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Ryan Lowder, who owns four Salt Lake City-area eateries including Copper Onion, said his businesses have taken a similar hit. He said they’ve been closing some of their restaurants earlier as fewer people have been dining out. And while they have no plans to shut down their restaurants right now, he said a closure might be looming as a precautionary measure.

The local business owners’ concern comes as Utah health officials announced Saturday morning that Utah has its first documented case of community spread of COVID-19 — and the patient works in the restaurant industry. A doorman at The Spur Bar and Grill in Park City has been diagnosed with the disease, officials announced, and the bar has been closed since late Friday evening.

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Spur Bar & Grill in Park City is closed after an employee contracted COVID-19. It was announced on Saturday, March 14, 2020, and was the first case of community spread found in Utah.

But if there were fewer people than usual milling about restaurants and bars in Salt Lake City on Saturday, it wasn’t readily apparent. At Copper Onion’s brunch service, the dining room was scattered with couples chatting over glasses of wine, friends eating together and a family who brought in a cake to celebrate.

But there were tell-tale signs that things weren’t quite business as usual. The menus were printed on thin paper, to be thrown out after a table ordered. Homemade hand sanitizer was available for patrons when they walked through the door.

Restaurants across town were taking similar measures. The smell of bleach hung in the air at a local coffee shop. Condiment bottles at Garage Grill were taken off the tables, Ford said, and straws without wrappers weren’t being used.

“We really want the public to feel that we’re taking as many precautions as we can,” he said.

Some of these small business owners were encouraging the public to still visit them — if they are healthy and not considered at-risk. For some restaurant owners, their livelihoods depend on it.

Schmidt’s Pastry Cottage has been hit particularly hard, owner Brett Borg said, because it has big contracts to provide pastries for Utah Jazz games and the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium — both have suspended operations.

Borg said he thinks they’ll get by with daily sales, but he worries for their 50 or so hourly employees and whether the bakery will continue to have enough work for them to do.

“We’ve never experienced anything like this,” he said. “We really want to take care of our employees, but we’re not millionaires. We don’t have a nest egg we can sit back on and give everybody paid leave. But we care so much about our employees.”

Cody McKendrick, co-owner of Bewilder Brewing Co., said he’s already cut his part-time staff, most of whom have other jobs, but has kept his full-time workers so far. He said their sales have been down 50%, and the timing could not have been worse — as a new brewery that opened just months ago, he said, they were just getting on their feet before sales plummeted. He worries that if his brewery needs to close, even short-term, they won’t be able to recover.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the finances to pay ourselves or any of our people right now for a prolonged shutdown,” he said. “Maybe if the [federal Small Business Administration] comes out with some funds, hopefully that will help us keep our employees paid if there’s any sort of extended shutdown.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cody McKendrick, co-owner of Bewilder Brewing Co. in Salt Lake City who says business has been down 50%, clears tables on Saturday, March 14, 2020, on a day that would have been much busier had the St. Patrick's Day parade not been cancelled. The restaurant industry has been affected by social distancing and coronavirus concerns.

As uncertainty looms, McKendrick said, they’ll just be doing their best to keep the bar clean and sanitized, so they won’t be the cause of coronavirus spreading through the community.

On Saturday, the brewery still had a few regulars drinking beer and gearing up for St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Among them was Angie Milner, who was with a group of friends throwing darts and toasting the holiday with green glitter beer.

She said she wasn’t too concerned about being out in public and the potential for coronavirus. Milner said she was more concerned about how difficult it was to buy groceries the night before.

But she said she wanted to come out Saturday to support a local business she loved.

“I’m more worried about the trickle-down,” she said, “what’s going to happen financially to our locally owned businesses, the mom-and-pop stores that are suffering right now.”