Akron-area restaurants react to threat of new COVID-19 restrictions

By Eric Marotta, April Helms and Phil Keren
Akron Beacon Journal
Brothers Kevin Altomare & J.J. Altomare co-own Hudson’s Restaurant on Main Street in downtown Hudson. This photo was taken in July. Kevin said it was "disheartening" to hear Gov. Mike DeWine talk about the possibility of shutting down restaurants again due to COVID-19.

HUDSON - Kevin Altomare, co-owner of Hudson's Restaurant on Main Street, said it was "disheartening" to hear the governor talk about potentially closing restaurants due to COVID-19 because "we're doing everything and anything we can possibly do" to keep customers and employees safe.

During an evening address to Ohioans on Wednesday, Gov. Mike DeWine warned that bars, restaurants and fitness centers could be ordered closed this week if COVID-19 cases continue to spike. He did not specify what virus case level would trigger the closures as Ohio infections continue to break new case records.

Altomare, who co-owns Hudson's with his brother, J.J., said his establishment has an air purification system, an electrostatic sprayer that is used to disinfect the restaurant periodically and all employees and customers must wear masks unless they're seated.

He noted that the Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA) has been helpful since it was implemented by the city in the summer. Under the DORA, people can purchase an alcoholic drink in a designated cup from participating businesses and then walk around in a designated area with their beverage.

"We're just hoping that everybody does their part so that they don't shut us down [this] week," said Altomare.

Jeff Bruno, of Papa Joe’s Iacomini’s restaurant in the Merriman Valley, said his family-owned business is in it for the “long haul” despite the potential of another statewide industry shutdown.

“We’ve taken every precautions known to mankind to make things right ... Whatever the governor decides, we have to go with it," Bruno said. "We’re a part of whatever will make this right.”

He noted the business already is following state requirements meant to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The restaurant includes an Italian market and is a diversified business that has been able to weather declines for generations, he said.

“Of course, when you get your business cut down, you deal with it,” he said.

“This will not go just for restaurants or bars, it will go for anyone giving service,” he added.

A row of bars on Weathervane Lane in Akron's Merriman Valley on Friday. Gov. Mike DeWine has mandated that bars must stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m. during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re at the mercy of this virus right now that’s killing a lot of people and when the hospitals fill up, then there’s not a lot our citizenry can do but sacrifice. We’ve been through world wars, we’ve been through depression, we’ve been through other wars, we’ve been through economic collapses, we’ve been through stock market collapses, and we’ve weathered it all ... we will do the best for our staff and we will do the best for our customers.”

Jeff Bruno, co-owner of Papa Joe's Italian restaurant in Akron's Merriman Valley, added plexiglass barriers between booths. The barriers are in addition to the new floor, wall treatments and other renovations made before the mid-march COVID-19 shutdown.

The governor previously ordered bars and restaurants to shut down at the beginning of the pandemic in mid-March to slow the spread of the virus. At the time, Ohio had 37 reported COVID-19 cases.

The first shutdown lasted until May 15, when the state permitted restaurants and bars to begin serving patrons on their outdoor patios and outside dining areas on May 15.

Inside service, including for meals, resumed May 21, with virus precautions such as 6-foot social distancing between tables.

Bars and restaurants have been struggling to survive after the first shutdown and with reduced capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Half of Ohio’s restaurant and bar owners are concerned they will be forced to permanently close in less than a year, according to a poll in August from the Ohio Restaurant Association.

Ed Hoegler, who co-owns Mavis Winkles Irish Pub in Twinsburg with his wife, Tammy, said he wasn't certain what the governor might do.

"My assumption is that he would just close the dining rooms," Hoegler said. "Since day one, we’ve been good with social distancing. Our staff was very willing to wear the masks and make sure our customers do."

The possibility of having to close is "not something we would look forward to," Hoegler added. "We’ve been trying to do everything correctly since day one. Our to-go business has been very strong; some nights it’s over 50%. That would be tough if it went away.” 

Hoegler said that his restaurant is large enough that it was easy for him to spread tables out to comply with social distancing.  

Despite the optimism expressed by some operators, the reality is many have taken an economic hit.

Tom Metlovski, owner of Village Gardens Restaurant and Pub on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls, acknowledged businesses have a responsibility to help keep people safe.

"We need to fight this pandemic and try to beat this pandemic," he said, but added, "If we get shut down, oh my gosh, I don't know what's going to happen."

Metlovski said his sales are down by about 45% due to the pandemic and noted he's spending a lot of money to install added accommodations to keep customers safe and make them feel comfortable.

He also said that everyone needs to pitch in to help.

"We're in a very serious situation," Metlovski said. "Are we going to help each other? It depends on us, the citizens."