Ketchem’s restaurant in Hartford recently went through a challenging time.
A candidate meet-and-greet held at the family-owned establishment last month was linked to an outbreak of COVID-19, putting the restaurant in the center of a storm no business owner wants to be in. Business fell off. The owners had to scale back on staffing. They’ve received support and criticism for remaining open. To reassure their customers, they brought in a commercial cleaning company to disinfect the restaurant and its attached ice cream parlor where the candidate event was held.
“As crazy as it sounds, I think people almost have in their minds that the restaurant has the virus – not people, but the restaurant,” Ketchem’s co-owner Cherie Orr said. “That’s the reason we wanted to take these extra precautions and get everything fumigated.”
Owning a business is hard enough when times are good, but throw a pandemic into the mix and the challenges mount. How do business owners balance livelihoods with keeping employees and customers safe when a potential exposure is just a droplet away?
Matt Parker, president of the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce, said businesses have taken different approaches depending on the type of business and how it interacts with the public.
“A lot of the businesses have established their own protocols in their companies with the mask requirement and their customers coming in there,” Parker said. “It’s really all across the board… I’ve seen a lot of our businesses put the mask protocol on their businesses.”
Alabama is under a mask mandate until Aug. 31 and had more than 85,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. The state has reported more than 1,500 deaths due to the coronavirus.
The Alabama Department of Public Health has guidelines for restaurants and other types of businesses. For restaurants, the department recommends call-ahead seating, social distancing, regular cleaning and sanitizing surfaces, and avoiding guests gathering at entrances or other areas. Guidelines vary and can be found at alabamapublichealth.gov.
In Hartford, it wasn’t just Ketchem’s impacted. While the restaurant stayed open, other businesses and government facilities in the town closed to the public until further notice, including city hall and the public library.
Geneva County’s number of confirmed cases inched up each day last week bringing the county to a total of 210 confirmed cases with 80 of those confirmed in the last 14 days. By Friday, the county had reported 32 more cases since the prior week. The county, which was the last county to report a case of COVID-19, still has fewer confirmed cases than the rest of the Wiregrass.
In the case of the outbreak in Hartford, the candidate event was held July 23 in Ketchem’s ice cream parlor. The following Monday, Orr – who was on a planned vacation the family takes every year – got a phone call from an employee regarding the coronavirus exposure linked to the event.
“We started working on this Monday afternoon trying to find somebody who could come in and fumigate the restaurant,” said Orr, who operates the restaurant and event venue with her brother Jason Ketchem. “You can’t physically wipe off every surface in the restaurant – you can’t get to the ceiling, you can’t get under the tables.”
The restaurant had to be prepped with items such as dishes and glasses protected so that the disinfectant wouldn’t coat them. Then, a Dothan company came in and sprayed an aerosol disinfectant from the ceiling to the floor. The disinfectant is also designed to settle any airborne droplets. The next morning, staff wiped tables and surfaces down with a milder disinfectant.
Orr said the restaurant staff is still doing the daily cleaning and disinfecting. The restaurant’s tables are spread out, condiments have been removed from the tables and the dining room staff will be wearing masks at all times when working with customers and unable to maintain the recommended 6-foot distance.
Orr has taken to Facebook to explain the situation to customers. Most of the comments were supportive. Ketchem’s is still offering curbside service as well as take-out for customers not comfortable with dining in the restaurant.
“A lot of people are criticizing us because we didn’t close,” she said. “We just can’t close every time because when school starts back, there’s going to be another outbreak. There’s just no way around that. When people start getting back together, masks or no masks, when school starts back, there will be an outbreak. I’m all for schools starting back but that will happen, and you can’t just continue to close everything down when there is an outbreak.”