Cleveland restaurant owners launch #WeCantClose, asking Gov. DeWine to allow compliant businesses to stay open

A quiet East 4th Street
Posted at 11:05 AM, Nov 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-16 18:45:35-05

CLEVELAND — As Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s announcement of a potential shutdown of dine-in restaurants looms over the restaurant industry, more than a dozen restaurants in Cleveland are coming together to launch #WeCantClose, a unified messaging campaign dedicated to appeal to DeWine to allow compliant businesses to continue operating while also bringing greater scrutiny to non-compliant bars and restaurants.

Ohio's restaurant and hospitality industry accounts for 10% of the state's total workforce, employing more than a half-million people across the state. A recent survey conducted by the Ohio Restaurant Association (ORA) found that nearly 60 percent of the state's restaurants may shut down permanently under the current conditions. If a second shut down were to occur, that number could be even higher.

"We've all probably spent around $10,000 to $30,000 to get our facilities to the point where we're meeting the santiation requirements and the social distancing requirements," said Johnny Hutton, the owner of Zanzibar Soul Fusion. "For those of us that are really practicing safely, it doesn't sound good at all that there is another opportunity for us closing."

Hutton said the shutdown in March, April and May dug a large hole for the business and only now he feels like the business is beginning to get out of. Hutton said the staff needed at least a month after dining rooms were opened in a limited capacity this summer.

"We don't know what the second hole is going to look like. March dug a deep hole that we all had to learn how to dig our way out of," Hutton said. "For small businesses like ours, there is a lot of uncertain fear. It will be some dangerous water."

Restaurants in the #WeCantClose effort are telling DeWine that restaurants without citations should be able to stay open for hospitality reasons and to maintain their livelihoods.

The growing list of restaurants participating include:

Angie’s Soul Food, Akin Affrica
Astoria Market and Cafй, Steve Daniels
Bier Markt, Bar Cento, Sam McNulty
Brown Derby, Parry Girves
DANTE, Dante Boccuzzi
EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute, Brandon Chrostowski
Fahrenheit, Rocco Whalen
Mallorca Restaurant, Laurie Torres
Marble Room Steaks & Raw Bar, Malisse Sinito
Ohio Restaurant Association, John Barker
Pickwick & Frolic, Nick Kostis
The Standard, Said Ouaddaadaa
Winking Lizard, John Lane

"It's about this industry, an industry where we have worked so hard to find a strong point in. WE know that we are not following these protocols safely, we're not going to have an industry," said Brandon Chrostowski, the owner of EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute. "It takes a team of enforcers from the city, county and state to revoke licenses and to put the strictist punishment forth. For the other 95 percent of our industry that is doing it correctly, we're going to be to blame. That's what the governor has to understand."

Although the coalition of restaurateurs certainly has their work cut out for them, Chrostowski said the goal is to convince Gov. DeWine that restaurants that continue to follow the necessary precautions without issue should the spared the potentially devastating impact that a second shutdown could create. However, those that continue to be out of compliance should face enhanced penalties and even revocation of their liquor or operating licenses.

As part of the #WeCantClose movement, participating restaurants that are found not to be in compliance with sanitation and social distancing requirements will be removed from the coalition.

"We want to tell the governor that we endorse, we encourage you take away any license that allows [offending restaurants] to operate because it has to stop," Chrostowski said. "It's got to stop. It has to stop. It's not uncommon for some of our restaurant peers to call those that are violating these standards to tell them to cut it out. The doctor at Ohio State says restaurants are not the cause. We don't want to be punished for the bad brand image that some of the restaurants and bars have given us."

In a recent statement, the Ohio Restaurant Association (ORA) said restaurants have worked to make their spaces safe for customers, and therefore, should be able to stay open.

“Implementing rigorous health and safety measures has always been at the core of what we do as businesses. Many of our members have made significant investments over the past several months to provide additional precautions. We believe that indoor dining, through following the guidance of public health officials, can be done safely.”

“Our employees can’t withstand another shut down,” said Jone Lane, of Winking Lizard. "During this pandemic, not only were they out of work already for over two months, they are now taking a major financial hit with less hours, less seats, and therefore, less guests.”

John Barker, president and CEO of the ORA, strongly objected to DeWine’s talk of a possible closure, and said the rise in cases isn’t within restaurants, but instead from unregulated events and gatherings.

Barker said 58% of Ohio restaurants indicated they will be forced to close permanently if current conditions continue.

RELATED: DeWine defends possible restaurant closure; Ohio Restaurant Association says some won't survive