Virginia restaurant owners scramble to reopen, lawmakers call for regional approach

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ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) – Governor Ralph Northam announced he will allow a gradual reopening of the state’s economy starting Friday.

“Phase 1 represents a small step forward but we will remain vigilant. We will continue to monitor health data closely. I again want to remind all this virus has not gone away,” Northam said during Wednesday’s press conference.

The plan allows non-essential retail and churches to reopen at 50% capacity. Gyms will remain closed but can have outdoor fitness classes. Restaurants can’t open unless they serve outside and the capacity must not exceed 50%.

“One must have the ability to wing it,” said Jack Barrow, owner of 128 Pecan in downtown Abingdon. “The restaurant business is very social and so we’ve been operating for the last month or so and not really seeing anybody so it’ll be really interesting to have that interaction again.”

128 Pecan has been serving to-go for the past few weeks. “I built a little to-go window and a drive-thru kind of thing and that’s done very well for us and it’s going to stick around,” Barrow said.

Barrow plans on opening outdoor dining at half capacity Friday, forcing him to turn his parking lot into a dining area.

“We’re going to put some tables outside and some chairs outside and play it by ear,” said Barrow. “There’s a lot more costs involved, as far as they’re wanting somebody to just be a person that cleans… all that’s going to be a learning curve for everybody. The first time seeing a waitress go to a table with gloves and a mask on… that’s going to be the hard one.”

But if diners in Southwest Virginia want to eat inside a restaurant dining room they have to go south to Tennessee.

“It’s very unfair what the governor has done to Southwest Virginia,” said 40th district state Senator Todd Pillion. “In Virginia, now we’re weather dependent if we want to have a dining experience other than take-out. One size does not fit all in the Commonwealth and when we are closer to Tennessee than to northern Virginia and to Richmond- we asked for a regional approach.”

That approach is something Gov. Northam has rejected according to the senator and Delegate Terry Kilgore.

“He’s reopening phase one this Friday. He’s delaying reopening phase one in northern Virginia by using those same data points that he’s been talking about the entire time that we’ve been trying to get him to use in Southwest Virginia but he’s refused to do,” Pillion said. “When we have a health district that has data points that supported phase one two weeks ago… I believe that we could’ve opened two weeks ago.”

Kilgore and Pillion saying rejecting the notion was a mistake.

“I hope he realizes the amount of strain he and the commonwealth are putting on these individual’s ability to run their business,” said Kilgore. “We could’ve gone a little bit faster because as it relates to the spread of coronavirus it doesn’t know if it’s one side of state street or the other.”

Both lawmakers hoping phase one moves quickly.

“The whole southwest delegation would be pushing our governor to allow us to move forward because I think we have not seen many new cases at all in Southwest Virginia,” said Kilgore.

Back at 128 Pecan- the owner sees the struggle as the start of something new.

“As odd as this may sound… this is an opportunity,” said Barrow.

Continuing coverage of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

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