On Monday, Gov. Albert Bryan announced that restaurants will have to begin using single-use cutlery and flatware starting on June 15, and restaurant owners have plenty of concerns.
Lisa Hamilton, president of the U.S. Virgin Islands Hotel and Tourism Association, wrote a letter of opposition to the mandated use of disposables that was co-signed by over 60 restaurants across the territory’s four islands.
The letter was a collaborative effort among four organizations: the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, the St. Croix Hotel Association, the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel Association; and additional food service businesses that are not a part of those organizations.
Conversations are now ongoing about potential changes to the mandate, Hamilton said. “The good news is that we have had a very positive public-private sector relationship through navigating this pandemic and are currently working with the governor on hopefully some alternatives,” she said.
“We totally understand the Department of Health’s priority is everybody’s safety, and we want nothing more than that for our workers and for any of the people that are visiting the islands,” she added.
Kevin Horan, operations manager for French Quarter Bistro in Frenchtown, one of the restaurants that signed the letter, spoke to the Source about some of his concerns about the mandate. “One, the dining experience for the customers. We’re a higher-end restaurant; we sell steak, we sell fine wine. These are not items that people would want to consume with plastic cups and plastic knives.” He said he has already heard from customers that say “it’s not the experience that we want.“
Patricia LaCorte, the owner of the Oceana in Frenchtown and also a co-signer of the letter, echoed that sentiment, saying “We have menus that are designed. That really is fine dining, that you can’t really serve a steak, or a lobster, on these kind of disposables, [or] use cutlery to cut them, so from that perspective the dining experience for anyone is now impacted. So will they really come? We don’t really know.”
On-top of being practically shut down for the last seven weeks, restaurateurs say the new mandate is an additional burden to deal with. “We are already at a disadvantage, we can not fill our restaurants, and then we have to increase our cost to provide disposable ware to customers,” Horan said.
Since the disposable supplies needed to emulate a fine dining experience are not available on island, LaCorte estimates it would cost $3,000 for supplies and shipping for about three weeks.
In addition to the cost, LaCorte said the week between the announcement and when the mandate will begin may not be enough time for Oceana to prepare to reopen on Monday.
Horan feels that French Quarter Bistro has measures already in place to stop the spread of germs. “We go through painstaking efforts to sanitize and clean all of the items that we put out for customers. We use a three-stage dish washing system that fully sanitizes and disinfects anything.” He said he hasn’t had a complaint about a customer getting sick in over three years of running the restaurant.
Oceana’s dish washing machine gets inspected weekly to make sure it is up to standards, according to LaCorte.
Another concern for Horan is that French Quarter Bistro employs two people per shift to wash dishes and now may have to lay off those employees if there are no dishes to wash because of the new mandate.
LaCorte raised the additional concern of the environment saying, “We already have a landfill that’s burning and the last thing we need is to add to that landfill. With all the restaurants – as a group we have all been discussing this – we’re talking about almost 50 restaurants between all three islands; that’s a lot of waste.”
LaCorte’s statement is in line with community concern that the ever-growing landfill in Bovoni will become more susceptible to events like the fire on Monday as waste continues to pile up.
Prior to COVID-19, Oceana tried to be diligent and recycle as much plastic as they could, LaCorte said.
“Our occupancy is limited,” she said. “I can seat 200 people and I’m limited to 50. I can accept that, but what I have a hard time accepting is going to disposables when we don’t have too.”
Karrl Foster, owner of Za Rock Pizza Kitchen in Tillet Gardens, spoke to the Source about how his restaurant has begun to adjust to the new mandate. “We’re fortunate. We can use a disposable paper plate and most people are fine with using their hands to eat pizza.” But, he added, “We run into an issue when people sit in and they want to have a glass of wine and we have to serve it to them in a cup. There’s nothing we can do about that.”
The disposable cups that Za Rock Pizza Kitchen uses to serve the wine are already an eco-friendly option, as opposed to a plastic cup. The cost difference is “not huge because we’re a small place. It hasn’t had that much effect yet, however when we open and are able to take a full amount people, then it will have a measurable effect,” Foster said.
Foster said he was told yesterday of another adjustment that he will have to make, and that is seating for the bar at Za Rock Pizza Kitchen will be limited to two people. He said he was expecting to be able to sit four at the bar since the usual capacity is eight. Restaurants were told previously that they would be able to accommodate 50 percent of their usual capacity, but the reason for the smaller number is that it is a compact bar.
“The biggest thing for right now is there is a lot of confusion for what is and what isn’t. It seems like things change daily; we’re often left in the lurch not really knowing what we should do … it’s just confusing, you never really know if you’re getting it right because you’re afraid if you don’t get it right then you get fined.”
Foster said he is grateful that the restaurant industry is able to begin operating again. “Looks like business is starting to pick up and we’re starting to contribute to the economy again, so that’s helpful for all of us,” he said.
Additional online opposition to the mandate appeared in the form of a petition on Change.org Tuesday. It received more than 2,000 signatures in 24 hours.