Just over two years ago, my husband Roberto Copa Matos and I started COPA, the nation’s first farm-to-table Cuban restaurant and a living-wage employer. We started it with its sister farm, Terra Sacra, with the mission of “cultivating relationships from soil to table.”

We were on track to finally turn a modest profit when our dine-in service was shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We pivoted immediately to online orders, takeout, and delivery as well as starting a small “bodega” for grocery items. Even in the toughest moments, we haven’t closed our doors. We have reinvented ourselves so many times now that we’ve lost count. Still, we’re losing the battle.

Our city’s independent restaurants are dying an unnecessary death due to the inaction and lack of political will of Durham’s leaders. If Mayor Schewel, Durham City Council, Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, and the county commissioners do not take swift, bold action immediately, Durham will lose the industry that has helped turn the city into one of the most desirable destinations in the Southeast.

Our independent restaurants haven’t just built a national reputation for Durham. We also provide living wages and dignified employment to thousands of people. We are essential to the well-being and vibrancy of this beloved city, and we are dying from neglect.

While I am sympathetic to the many needs of our diverse city, I cannot help but recognize that the inaction of city and county leaders on behalf of our independent restaurants is so extreme one could argue our leaders aren’t just being unhelpful, they are being actively anti-small business.

I and dozens of our industry’s leaders have attended weeks on end of roundtables and committee meetings because Mayor Schewel asked us to “be creative,” “build resiliency,” and “work together.” We have done just that. Through the Durham Restaurant Coalition, founded by Dorian Bolden, we have proposed at least six different programs. At each turn, we are either shut down by the city’s attorneys or told to find our own funding. Time and again, we hear nothing from our leaders.

The closest to success that we have come in working with the city is with the outdoor dining program, something other communities around the state and country managed to implement weeks ago but which is still not active in Durham. During the pandemic, outdoor dining provides a safer dining experience, attracts customers who don’t feel comfortable eating indoors, and brings vibrancy back to a dormant city, thus driving economic recovery.

The benefits of outdoor dining are obvious and virtually uncontested. And yet, it still took two months for the plan to go for a vote, despite the persistent efforts led by Shawn Stokes of Luna, Rochelle Johnson of The Cast Iron Group, and Downtown Durham, Inc. The vote passed unanimously on July 1. Victory? Not really.

For starters, the outdoor dining program comes with zero funding. The city isn’t even providing traffic barriers to protect people sitting in street-side parking spaces. That burden and expense fall on the restaurants, as does furnishing, lighting, and beautifying the space. This means we have to serve enough people who otherwise wouldn’t eat indoors to pay for the upfront investment before we can begin to think of covering payroll or rent.

Even the application process is unnecessarily cumbersome. Among other tedious steps, applicants must submit a to-scale drawing for a space that does not belong to us, utilizing measurements we do not have. When the co-chair of the Task Force for Renewal and Recovery agreed that the application was overly complicated, the mayor, city council, and the Durham City-County Planning Department still did nothing to simplify it.

But perhaps the biggest blow to the outdoor dining program came on Friday, July 3, when we learned Governor Cooper’s Executive Order EO 141 mandates that our total capacity must remain at 50 percent of our normal indoor seating, “even if you have space the size of a football field,” to quote a member of the governor’s staff. This effectively eliminates the greatest benefit of the outdoor dining program, which was intended to bring restaurants back to full capacity.

Under the executive order, to utilize outdoor space, we will have to further reduce our indoor seats at the same time that we are investing our extremely limited resources into a program that the city council has the authority to end at any moment.

I recognize that every day thousands of people are dying. We are living the single greatest crisis most of us will ever witness. I am 100 percent on board with doing whatever it takes to beat this deadly virus—as are the other restaurant owners I know. In addition to the human toll that COVID-19 is taking, the virus is also threatening to unravel the fabric of our society, held together in many ways by independent restaurants that don’t just serve food and drink, but that provide a place to gather and celebrate.

We are drowning. Since it seems a rescue crew isn’t coming, I’m asking for a simple buoy to keep us temporarily afloat.

I propose that the city and county collaborate to provide a 50 percent matching grant, up to a maximum of $2,000 per establishment, toward the cost of furnishing an outdoor dining space. The money will go toward tables, chairs, lighting, barriers, and beautification. I also propose that the outdoor dining program be extended through the end of 2021 to give restaurants time to recoup their investments. While this would only be a small first step, it is the bare minimum Durham owes to an industry that anchors its growth.

The framework for such a program is already available in the form of the city’s Retail and Professional Services Grant program with the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. The program serves “to assist business owners and improve the pedestrian experience by enhancing the visibility and appearance of businesses.” Outdoor dining would accomplish the same goal and more.

A matching grant would allow cash-strapped restaurants to make the necessary investments in an outdoor dining program. The grant would also incentivize people to frequent Durham restaurants by providing a safe, attractive, and creative dining experience. And while a micro-grant won’t save a dying business, it will help restaurants to buy time, invest in a new program, keep their employees, and hopefully boost sales, thus increasing sales tax revenue for the city and county.

I am calling on Durham’s residents to help save our independent restaurants. Call, email, tweet, and tag Mayor Schewel, city council members, Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, and the county commissioners. Tell them to fund a matching grant program for outdoor dining. Perhaps they’ll listen to your pleas because they certainly haven’t heard ours. 

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One reply on “COPA’s Owner Calls on Durham to Do More for Restaurants During COVID-19”

  1. I can appreciate that times are tougher for restaurants, who can be open and at 50% capacity. Let’s not forget the bars, gyms, dance studios, movie theaters, etc that are 100% closed. You’re right on one count: the city and the state need to step up way more than they have. We need rent abatement. We’d all be in a much better place with that.

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