Jackrabbit Filly was one of several local restaurants that temporarily closed amid the omicron variant | Photo by Ruta Smith

Charleston restaurants continue to feel the impact of omicron, with more than 10,000 new cases confirmed Jan. 21. Staffing shortages are still an issue, and the rise of COVID cases have made it even harder. Indoor dining remains open for many eateries, but at the cost of shifting business hours or running with a small team.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Babas co-owner Edward Crouse said in an email. “Overnight (or in the course of week) restaurants’ schedules across the city were gutted.”

Babas co-owners Edward Crouse and Marie Stitt

Early Bird Diner, for example, started posting daily hours on Instagram “due to being short-staffed.” 

On the other side of the Ravenel Bridge, Little Miss Ha shifted back its opening to 12 p.m. daily to “allow [its] very hard working and small staff to better serve you when [it] is open.”

In the worst cases, restaurants had to close completely. 

Jackrabbit Filly on Jan. 6 announced via Instagram that it will close for the day, and on the next, offered only takeout orders “due to high concerns amongst [its] staff.” But on Jan. 8, the restaurant announced, “We have made the hard decision to close for the rest of the weekend.”

“Talking to the staff, they felt uncomfortable working,” co-owner and chef Shuai Wang told the City Paper. “You don’t want to force your employees to work if they’re not comfortable to work in this environment.”

“It’s a privilege that most employees don’t realize — that they don’t ever have to make the hard decisions that Corrie and I have to make,” he added. “You just try to do your best, and hopefully you’re making the right decision.”

“I never learned how to react during a pandemic in culinary school.”

Fortunately, the restaurant reopened the following week, continuing normal hours and operations, including its popular Sunday dim sum brunch. 

Babas had been fortunate enough to not close its doors or shift its hours. And according to Crouse, it was the busiest two weeks of the year.

“We are fortunate that we’re a small operation and worse comes to worse, we can power through with a lean team,” Crouse said. “But some of these big operations, I can’t imagine.”

“Can you also imagine that with all that going on, the city decided it was time to get rid of our parklet? It was nuts,” Crouse added.

In mid-January, city officials ordered the owners of Babas and nearby Cutty’s to dismantle their outdoor parklets, reportedly after state transportation officials said it was time for the experiment to end on Cannon Street, a state-owned road.

Nearby at Chubby Fish, owner James London has taken precautionary measures to prevent a closure of his popular seafood establishment.

London

When at-home rapid tests were made available, London purchased around 250 tests for his staff and takes his staff to get tested at least once a week, he said. 

“It takes a lot of time and money. Those rapid tests aren’t cheap,” London added. “But it’s better than shutting down for a week.” 

Chubby Fish hasn’t had to shut down due to COVID concerns since receiving the rapid tests, and London says if one of his staff is showing symptoms, they’re told to stay home and get tested.

“We run a really tight staff, so if we lose two people, we’d have to shut down,” said London. “We put out a certain product we stand behind and don’t want to put out anything less than that.”

Those are just a handful of restaurants in the city being affected by COVID.

Pay It Forward, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping workers in the food and beverage industry, has seen applications for assistance increase 400% since December 2021. 

Larson

“Folks are struggling right now,” said executive director Carrie Larson. “I think COVID is tearing through restaurant communities. Whether someone is sidelined due to COVID exposure, a positive test or restaurants having to close due to staffing shortages, it’s kind of created this perfect storm of need and instability within the industry.”

Pay It Forward provides emergency assistance to food and beverage industry workers. To apply, individuals must work a minimum of 30 hours per week and have been working in the industry for at least six months in Charleston. Once those two requirements are verified, the individual is qualified to receive an average of a $250 grant. Workers in need of assistance can apply to receive a grant twice. 

“For the most part, folks can apply and expect a quick turnaround for the assistance,” Larson added. “And we’re seeing most of our applicants coming through needing assistance based entirely around COVID, whether they, a dependent or parent has been sick or missed hours due to restaurants having to adjust their service hours.”

With the increase in applications for workers needing assistance, Pay It Forward is “on track” to distribute $10,000 a month, said Larson.

“We really want to be well positioned to help everyone that applies, so we see ourselves this winter really pushing for contributions and for our community members who are able to donate to support those in need.” 

To learn how you can help food and beverage industry workers in need, head to payitforwardcharleston.org