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Some St. Louis area businesses and attractions close amid omicron surge

South St. Louis bar and restaurant The Royale is one of several small businesses and attractions that recently closed their doors temporarily to wait out the latest surge of the coronavirus in the region.
Corinne Ruff / St. Louis Public Radio
South St. Louis bar and restaurant The Royale is one of several small businesses and attractions that recently closed its doors temporarily to wait out the latest surge of the coronavirus in the region. "It's still tricky, and I'm just trying to adjust to it best I can," said owner Steven Fitzpatrick Smith.

Steven Fitzpatrick Smith suddenly closed his south St. Louis bar and restaurant, The Royale, on Saturday for the third time since the coronavirus pandemic started.

He’d spent the previous several weeks juggling employees’ quarantine schedules as they either came down with COVID-19 or were exposed to it over the holidays.

“I’m like, ’If people are going to keep getting sick like this, I’m not going to be able to staff, I’m not going to have any customers — or at least not enough,’” he said. “It just went through my head that day, ‘Screw it.’”

Fitzpatrick Smith moved up his planned two-week winter break and closed the restaurant.

He’s not the only one switching up his business strategy as the highly contagious omicron variant rips across the St. Louis region.

Many educational and entertainment attractions have also temporarily closed their doors through the end of the month, including the St. Louis Art Museum, the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Science Center and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, among others.

Glenn MacDonald, an economist and professor at Washington University’s Olin School of Business, said many organizations and small businesses spent the early parts of the pandemic hammering out strategies for adapting to surges in the virus.

“They kind of dial them down or up as conditions allow,” he said. “At the moment they’re kind of hunkering down like they were earlier last fall and they’re waiting it out and hoping it goes quickly.”

Local public health officials are urging people to avoid unnecessary activities over the next few weeks.

In St. Louis there is a mask mandate in effect on all indoor public spaces. But unlike early in the pandemic, St. Louis businesses are not required to enforce masks or limit capacity.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones told reporters Thursday that it isn’t currently feasible to implement stronger mandates because many people visit the city from surrounding counties.

Jones said she’s taking advice from the city’s health director, Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis.

“She has made a strong recommendation that we avoid social gatherings in order to slow the spread, as well as we have to continue getting vaccinated,” Jones said.

She’s encouraging people to upgrade to KN95 or N95 masks.

Some restaurants are still struggling with getting people to comply with their mask rules.

“It's like pulling teeth for us to get people to actually wear a mask in our restaurant,” said Lisa Aubuchon, the manager at a Fuddruckers franchise in Sunset Hills.

She said the latest surge is colliding with ongoing challenges in finding enough employees — a problem that’s impacted service businesses across the country for months.

Aubuchon is running the burger joint with about a third of the number of employees as usual and with service reduced from seven days a week to five. She said that when the pandemic first hit, the restaurant switched to a takeout-only model but couldn’t afford to do it again.

“That would be just be the death of us,” she said. “We wouldn't even be able to pay the employees that we do have if we did that, so that's not even an option.”

But Aubuschon said she worries about employees getting sick as the virus spreads rapidly in the region and how that could hurt the finances of the business too.

“If one employee gets it — we're so close knit here — we're all going to get it, and then there we go. Shut down again,” she said.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.