Local restaurants are beginning to cope with an updated county order that has decreased their indoor seating capacity from 50% to 30% as of Jan. 2

The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners issued the order in the wake of a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in December.

“Over the past month, we have been alarmed by the steep rise in the number of people becoming so sick from COVID-19 that they require hospitalization,” said Brownie Newman, chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

After a difficult year in which restaurants were closed for months and then reopened with limited capacity, many restaurant owners and managers are deeply upset with this latest restriction, said Jane Anderson, executive director of Asheville Independent Restaurant Association.

“I work with these folks day in and day out,” Anderson said. “I have never seen people so frustrated.”

“They’re irate … It was unexpected,” she added.

Anderson, who serves as an advocate for restaurants in the association, said that she initially had a call from a county official who told her that increased restrictions were slated to become effective Dec. 24.

“The timing was outrageous,” she said.

The last two weeks of the year were a time when restaurants hoped to make up for previous losses with additional diners, Anderson said. After talking with county officials, Anderson was able to persuade them to wait until Jan. 2 to enact the new restrictions.

“Our restaurants are frustrated because they feel they have been singled out,” Anderson added.

Placing greater restrictions on Buncombe County restaurants than the state requires is a major issue for them, she said.

“What we asked is for the city and county to stick with the governor,” Anderson said. “It’s a challenge when local people have to deal with local legislation.”

Currently, the state is permitting restaurants to operate at 50 percent capacity until Jan. 8 when Gov. Roy Cooper could update the COVID-19 order. The present state order also requires people to wear face masks in restaurants unless they are actively eating or drinking.

Explaining the decision to reduce restaurant capacity, Newman said that in recent weeks, the rate of positive cases of COVID-19 in Buncombe County has increased from 5 percent to more than 8 percent, and that hospitals have been experiencing increasing numbers of cases.

Newman also cited CDC research indicating the risk of COVID-19 infection is higher for people who dine indoors at restaurants where the virus can be spread through airborne particles.

“The unfortunate reality is that people must take off their masks in order to eat a meal,” Newman stated. “Having people from different households sitting around a table together indoors just a few feet from one another for 30 minutes or an hour or longer without masks is the perfect environment for the spread of COVID-19.”

Newman also said that the number of COVID-19 patients in Western North Carolina hospitals was 81 people several weeks ago. By Dec. 23, that number had jumped to 204 people, he noted.

Another policy change county commissioners have enacted is reducing the number of people from different households that may gather for social activities indoors from 10 to 2 persons.

“Our health officials believe that these indoor gatherings of people from different households is a significant driver in the growth of COVID illness in Buncombe County,” Newman said.

“Adoption of these policies is something we do only with real regret,” Newman said. “This has been a terrible year for many of our local businesses and the workers in our community. Adding to these hardships is the last thing we want to do, and we recognize that these policies do create real hardships for many.”

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