Little Rock restaurants face tough decisions amid spreading omicron variant

Coronavirus

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As positive case numbers continue to rise in Arkansas, the pandemic is having a negative impact on local businesses. In Little Rock, restaurant owners are deciding whether to stay open.

Jack Sundell owns two popular Little Rock restaurants: the Root Cafe and Mockingbird Bar & Tacos. Planned New Year’s operations were messed up by the omicron variant.

“It seemed like a fun time to do a New Year’s brunch, stay open Saturday,” Sundell said.

That changed when a staff member from each location tested positive for COVID-19. That meant dozens of other employees were close contacts.

“It just doesn’t feel right for us to know we have positive cases on staff and to continue serving,” Sundell said.

The restaurants closed last Thursday and will reopen this Thursday at 8 a.m. Sundell said he intended for there to be a short break this week to make up for working on the holiday, but he decided to go ahead and shut the doors.

“This is the longest time we’ve been closed, period since we opened 10 years ago,” Sundell said.

Mervin Jebaraj is the Director for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas’ Walton College of Business. He said throughout the pandemic, restaurants are often the first places to be sources of spread.

“You do increase the risk of getting COVID-19 from someone who might have it in that setting,” Jebaraj said.

Jebaraj said the country will likely see rolling closures at more places as the omicron variant spreads.

“All of that just adds to the general disruption that COVID’s brought to our lives,” Jebaraj said.

Though federal and state funding first became available during earlier portions of the pandemic, Jebaraj said much of it is still yet to be distributed.

“There is still some funding out there at the state level to address the needs of businesses,” Jebaraj said.

Sundell said employees missing needed hours at either of his restaurants are still getting to work during this period through projects like cleaning and organizing. He said he hopes the decision to temporarily close pays off in the long run.

“Restaurants may be getting an early glimpse at what omicron is and how transmissible it is,” Sundell said.

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