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Walk along the streets of Burlington, and it seems as if the pandemic is over. Restaurants are packed. Customers wait for tables, seemingly unconcerned.
But behind the scenes, restaurant owners in the city and elsewhere in Vermont still face daily staffing challenges as Covid-19 infections sideline employees.
“If we could open more, we would be busy,” said Cara Tobin, owner of Honey Road, which is open five days a week on Burlington’s Church Street.
“Just one person being out can affect a lot of business because we’re running pretty tight with our staffing,” Tobin said. “So it means that we don’t open for as many hours. We don’t open for as many days.”
On a night with full staff, the restaurant has about 15 or 16 people working at any one time, Tobin said, the same as it had pre-pandemic.
She said employees don’t work for at least five days if they test positive for Covid, returning only after testing negative for two consecutive days. The restaurant tests everyone before every shift, which she said has helped Honey Road to limit spread of the virus and avoid shutting down this year, she said. The restaurant pays employees when they are out with Covid, she added.
Servers are most affected because they interact with the public the most, Tobin noted.
“Things are still weird and we have to do what we have to do,” Tobin said.
Leslie Wells, who owns Trattoria Delia, Sotto Enoteca and Pizzeria Verita in Burlington, said she has not had to close a restaurant due to staff outages since last winter, when she closed frequently as employees got sick.
But, she said, it is not uncommon to have an employee or two out with Covid. Together, Sotto Enoteca and Trattoria Delia have about 25 people on staff, Wells said.
“We’re all feeling an impact for sure,” said Wells, who is also a member of the Vermont Independent Restaurant Coalition leadership council. “It’s kind of an up-and-down roller coaster right now.”
Sotto Enoteca and Trattoria Delia share a staff, which offers some flexibility. If two or three people call out, Wells stops accepting new reservations at Trattoria Delia and then decides whether to close Sotto Enoteca, which is a first-come, first-served restaurant.
In Waterbury, Mark Frier, who owns The Reservoir, said hiring challenges have prevented him from opening the restaurant seven days a week instead of its current six days.
“We’re still getting positive cases with staff members that require them to stay home for a certain period of time,” Frier said.
With two staff members out because of Covid, Frier said, he had to close his Stowe restaurant, The Bench, one Friday last month. Frier employs about 35 people at The Reservoir and 45 at The Bench.
Not everyone is feeling weighed down by the pandemic’s impact on business, however.
At The Bobcat Cafe and Brewery in Bristol, co-owner Erin Wheeler said staffing shortages have not affected her since the beginning of summer. She believes that’s true, in part, because nearly everyone on staff has already had Covid twice, increasing their immunity levels.
“If anything, the pandemic has sort of made things a little freer,” Wheeler said. “We decided to close for two days (a week), which we will continue to do forever. When we want to go on vacation, we close the restaurant for a week.”
Wheeler has found the adaptation a “revolutionary” change in her life.
“We’re a lot less stressed,” she said.
She lost almost all of her employees when she closed the restaurant at the onset of Covid in early 2020. Nearly all the employees who work there now were hired after she reconfigured the restaurant when it reopened that May.
Having shut down the restaurant early in the pandemic, she could not imagine what could be worse as a business owner.
“It just made me let go of a lot of things that don’t matter as much as I thought they did,” Wheeler said.
Some restaurant owners are also noticing the pandemic taking a toll on the mental health of their long-time employees.
“It’s something that maybe isn’t being talked about, and it’s taboo in a certain respect,” Frier said. Several of his employees have expressed mental health concerns, he said, and he has sometimes paid out of his own pocket to get them the support they needed.
“Not everyone asks for help,” he said. “It’s just a little scary.”
Wells, too, has observed the pandemic take its toll on the mental health of employees.
After one of her employees was having difficulty finding mental health care last year, Wells implemented an employee assistance program that provides up to five counseling sessions per employee.
“Those employees that have stuck with us through the ups and downs are just pretty fried,” Wells said. “So we’re sort of all working on empty.”
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