COVID concerns force Twin Cities restaurants to cut holiday season short

As the omicron variant intensifies, so do the woes of Twin Cities-area restaurants.

A rash of positive COVID cases had many high-profile restaurants choosing to temporarily close over the lucrative New Year’s holiday weekend. That includes Owamni, the Minneapolis riverfront destination that landed on best-restaurant lists nationwide, including the Star Tribune’s.

“Out of an abundance of caution to our staff and guests we have made the decision to close a few days early before our January break,” read a statement on the restaurant’s website. “The health of our staff and community is paramount and we chose to be on the side of safety and well-being.”

Owners Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson are taking precautions a step further, requiring proof of vaccination to dine at the restaurant when it reopens Jan. 19.

But, as several hospitality business owners point out, choosing whether to stay open, close, require masks or proof of vaccination is a struggle as they weigh health and safety against workers’ need to stay employed — with ever-changing guidelines.

“We can stay open and have everyone get tested, or we can say we don’t want to risk any other guests or staff test positive,” said St. Paul chef Brian Ingram, who made the call to temporarily close his Purpose Driven Restaurants. “We have to do the responsible thing before the government tells us what to do. We have to be leaders. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Ingram said he has a couple hundred COVID tests on the way, and has reimplemented protocols such as requiring masks for staff, increased spacing between tables and dialing back reservations. Hope Breakfast Bar, with locations in St. Paul and St. Louis Park, and the Gnome are slated to reopen Jan. 2.

“We can be better equipped to handle this surge,” he said. “If we have any staff that feels at all uncomfortable, that’s not good.”

Time to reset

Restaurateur Daniel del Prado closed two of his high-profile restaurants in Linden Hills, Martina and Rosalia, due to COVID exposure. He contacted the Minnesota Health Department seeking guidance on how best to handle his concerns.

“We needed to reset and catch up with letting people quarantine and get tested,” said del Prado. The restaurants plan to reopen for in-person dining and takeout Jan. 2. His other restaurants, Josefina in Wayzata and Sanjusan and Colita in Minneapolis, remained open.

“There are a lot of people who can’t take unemployment. They need the restaurant to be open. It’s really complicated and a hard decision,” del Prado said. “There’s nothing here that makes everyone happy. I would like to see some help or guidance from above so I don’t have to play God.”

Robb Jones, co-owner of Meteor Bar in Minneapolis, had made the decision to close the bar over the Christmas holiday after a potential COVID-positive exposure, but reopened in time to host a New Year’s Eve event in conjunction with the performance troupe Queerdo. Masks and proof of vaccination were required at the request of Queerdo.

“My biggest fear now is that people will be afraid to go out again,” Jones said. “If we shut down, no one gets paid. That’s my biggest worry.”

However, as a bar that relies on drop-in customers, Jones said Meteor Bar won’t be implementing a blanket vaccination policy anytime soon.

“This was a team decision. This is their health,” he said. “For us, we’re all boosted. We’re in KN95s. I think if we were a place that took reservations, and I had a better means of communicating with [customers], we would absolutely require vaccinations.”

Jones and co-owner Elliot Manthey had worked in fine-dining restaurants before opening the small but critically acclaimed dive bar. The entire staff consists of seven people, and their livelihoods weigh heavily on Jones.

“No business owner should be expected to have answers for [public health concerns],” Jones said, expressing concerns about restaurants standing between government policies and the general public. “We’re all following what we’re supposed to be doing. I can’t be responsible for the rest of society anymore. I was the mask police. We did that.”

All three are hopeful that this round of closures will be shorter. They also cited anecdotal reports that illnesses stemming from the surging omicron variant are less severe than previous COVID outbreaks.

“Hopefully, we are turning,” said del Prado.

A spate of closings

At the height of its annual holiday revelry, Miracle at Lawless, the Minneapolis distillery that decks the entire room with twinkle lights and ornaments, decided to proactively close temporarily, along with sister distillery Stilheart in downtown, before a planned winter break. Can Can Wonderland also shortened its holiday season, closing until Jan. 5.

Chef Ann Kim’s Young Joni in Minneapolis is closed completely through Jan. 3 and will serve takeout only through Jan. 8 before reopening for in-person dining Jan. 10.

“As we navigate the twists and turns of COVID, our staffing levels have fluctuated, and for now, we feel it is in our best interest to take a brief pause so the team can reset and take care of themselves,” read a statement on the restaurant’s website.

Sister restaurant Sooki & Mimi recently implemented a mask requirement for guests not seated at tables, and all staff members are required to wear double masks.

Other restaurants taking precautionary measures include: Isaac Becker’s Bar La Grassa (closed until Jan. 4), Estelle in St. Paul (closed until Jan. 10), and St. Paul Grill (closed until Jan. 5).

For those still planning to dine out, it’s best to check restaurants’ websites, social media or call ahead to confirm hours and COVID protocols.

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