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Fargo, Cass County bars, restaurants and event centers face new challenge with COVID-driven capacity cuts

With North Dakota's guidelines calling for allowing only 25 percent of a business's total capacity for customers in the doors at any one time, local business people say financial stress and uncertainty for the future of the hospitality industry is peaking.

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Chairs are set up for a socially distanced wedding at the Sanctuary Events Center in downtown Fargo on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — Owners and managers of event centers, bars and restaurants in Fargo are waiting to see how customers react — and if their finances hold up — as the state guideline on the number of people allowed in those places is chopped from 50% to 25% of capacity.

It’s a challenge Aaron Duma expected as COVID-19 infections rose.

“It’s been a bit of a scramble. It’s like everything since COVID started. It’s all fluid and we just try to roll with the punches,” Duma, the operating partner for Fargo’s Sanctuary Events Center and Moorhead’s RiverHaven Events Center, said Thursday, Oct. 15.

Apparently, brides and wedding planners have been steeling themselves for the attendance restrictions.

On Wednesday, “we started coordinating with our brides for the most recent future, the next few weeks anyway, letting them know that capacities will be limited. So far, everyone’s been fairly receptive; everyone understands the climate right now,” Duma said. “I don’t think anyone wants their wedding to be a superspreader.”

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Gov. Doug Burgum announced Wednesday that Cass County and 15 other counties are now in the high risk category for COVID-19 transmission. The restrictions that come with that designation aren’t law but are strongly recommended. The guidelines affect some of the state's biggest cities: Fargo, Bismarck, Dickinson and Williston.

The new restrictions will further stress venues’ bottom lines, Duma said.

“It’s been very tough. There’s no corporate events, no concerts. The only events that are occurring are weddings and what we call micro-weddings," Duma said

At Delta Hotels by Marriott in south Fargo, General Manager Carol Johnson said people have generally taken the restrictions in stride.

Most of the economic damage to wedding and events venues has already been done by the virus, she said.

“COVID has hit so hard previous to this that so many weddings, events, fundraisers, charitable organizations — you name it — so many of them have already canceled or cut back on numbers or are doing it virtually,” Johnson said Friday. “Whether it’s at 50% or 25%, whatever, hasn’t made a lot of difference based on how many people have been forced to cancel because of COVID.”

If people haven't rebooked into 2021, they've worked up contingency plans.

“I am amazed at how well-informed a lot of people are (about COVID restrictions). They track it and watch it every day,” she said.

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Restaurants and bars have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

The new capacity restrictions are “as direct of an impact as it can be,” Dan Hurder, owner of Twist, The Boiler Room, and president and CEO of Great Plains Hospitality, said Friday.

Operating at 25% capacity is “not terribly sustainable for businesses in our industry. I hope that this is short-lived, but the data certainly doesn’t make it look like we’ll be going forward anytime soon. So, the outlook for the industry is certainly not very great right now,” he said.

Hurder doesn’t know if he can cover his costs.

“Unfortunately, very few of us in the industry have ever operated at 25% capacity, so we don’t have a plan for that. We don’t have a financial model for that,” Hurder said.

He worries about losing staff, too.

“It’s quite apparent that I’m not going to make any money this year. But if we can at least keep them employed, so when we come out of this on the flip side, we have the team intact that we’ve spent years investing in and years supporting. … For me that’s really the motivator: what do I do with all of these people that rely on me for a paycheck?”

In March, politicians at the national level agreed on the need for financial aid for workers. Now, negotiations remain unresolved on further aid. But for the hospitality industry — and its support businesses — to survive, it will need some kind of government help, sooner rather than later, Hurder said.

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Duma agrees.

“The first quarter of next year is going to be brutal for bars and restaurants,” he said. “I just feel for my colleagues in that field. It’s going to be a long winter for those guys.”

Related Topics: DOUG BURGUMCORONAVIRUS
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