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Gulf Coast Businesses Struggle To Stay Open As COVID-19 Outbreaks Surge Among Staff

Lulu's restaurant in Gulf Shores, Ala., closed temporarily after COVID-19 infections were "racing among our staff," according to owner Lucy Buffett in a Facebook post. "Folks this is serious business," she says. "We are taking a pause to evaluate the best way to navigate this next phase of COVID."
Debbie Elliott
Lulu's restaurant in Gulf Shores, Ala., closed temporarily after COVID-19 infections were "racing among our staff," according to owner Lucy Buffett in a Facebook post. "Folks this is serious business," she says. "We are taking a pause to evaluate the best way to navigate this next phase of COVID."

Big Time Diner in Mobile, Ala., stopped serving on July 23.

"We had 12 people test positive, so we shut down," says Robert Momberger, owner of the neighborhood restaurant, which specializes in Southern sides and fresh Gulf seafood. He was among the staff who got sick, and he didn't want it to spread further.

"Oh, yeah, and unfortunately, I got through COVID, but during the process of COVID, I got pneumonia," he says. "That's what I'm trying to get over now."

Many of his young workers are not vaccinated, Momberger says. He had received only the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Now he's encouraging employees to get vaccinated, as the restaurant reopens Thursday with limited hours and new safety protocols, including masking.

Momberger says the restaurant was already short staffed because so many workers have left the hospitality industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He says he's paying employees an average of 25% more, on top of skyrocketing food prices. Nearly two weeks out of business is yet another setback.

"It is financially tough," Momberger says. "Bills still keep on coming. So it really hurts to shut down, but sometimes that's the best thing to do."

Big Time Diner is one on a growing list of businesses on the Gulf Coast that have temporarily shuttered because of outbreaks among staff.

A Walmart in the Florida Panhandle, for instance, closed for cleaning, citing high transmission and low vaccination rates. Gulf Coast states are hot spots for transmission of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. Vaccination rates remain low, but the pace of vaccination has picked up during this latest surge in cases.

In New Orleans, music venues have canceled shows because of infected staff. And now several popular clubs, including world-famous Tipitina's, will require proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend shows.

Stan Harris of the Louisiana Restaurant Association says bars and restaurants were just starting to recover from the financial upheaval of the last year and a half when this new wave hit.

"They're going through exposures right now, and they're having to limit their operations just because of COVID in this particular surge," Harris says. "We want to have an opportunity to turn back the clock and get this under control."

At some hospitals "these are the darkest days of this pandemic"

Louisiana is coping with the highest per capita rate of new COVID-19 cases in the United States. And hospitalizations are breaking records daily.

"When you come inside our walls it is quite obvious to you that these are the darkest days of this pandemic," says Dr. Catherine O'Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge.

She says hospitals are struggling to manage staff shortages, regular patients and now the flood of people with COVID-19.

"We are no longer giving adequate care to patients," she says. "We no longer think we're giving adequate care to anybody."

She described patients stranded in the emergency room because no hospital beds are available, or beds sitting empty because hospitals don't have workers to manage all the critical care needs. Federal disaster medical teams have deployed to the state to help.

The only way to alleviate the bottleneck, O'Neal says, is getting more people vaccinated and going back to masking.

This week, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards made indoor masking mandatory in Louisiana once again.

"This is having an adverse impact on people's lives today," Edwards said. "The least we can do is put a mask on. It is not an onerous burden."

Edwards' policy stands in stark contrast to those in other Southern states, where Republican governors have rejected mask mandates and where state laws are intended to prevent schools, colleges and businesses from requiring vaccines.

Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi has called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent mask guidance "foolish." And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has barred schools from requiring face coverings and denies that the new COVID-19 surge is a dire situation.

He accuses the media of stirring up hysteria.

"You try to fearmonger," he said during a Miami news conference. "And when they talk about hospitalizations, our hospitals are open for business."

At least one South Florida hospital chain is suspending elective surgeries and putting beds in conference rooms and cafeterias as cases surge. Florida is second only to Louisiana in terms of daily per capita COVID-19 spread.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.