Michael Oxbrough, owner of Cafe on the Circle in Georgetown, has opened his restaurant to limited seating outdoors, defying the current COVID-19 state of emergency allowing only carryout and delivery at statewide restaurants.
Starting May 4, Oxbrough, who opened his restaurant in December 2019 across from the Sussex County Courthouse at 7 East Market Street, said he decided it had been closed long enough – nearing more than 50 days.
He still offers carryout and curbside service, but is now allowing customers to sit in front of the cafe and behind it on a patio, allowing no more than 10 to 12 customers at a time to be seated.
“I'm not bucking the system,” he said. “I believe there are standards in place meant to protect people, and I'm fine with that. I think by now we all get it.”
Oxbrough said it's time for people to have an option. “I know people are supposed to get their food and go home, and I don’t have a problem with that. But some people want to eat out and socialize safely,” he said. “I respect everyone’s decision whether they want curbside, delivery or stay at home. It’s admirable, but it’s their choice. I am just supporting choice.”
On his first day of seating, Oxbrough said 20 people ate outside. “And 95 percent were elderly. All they wanted to do was eat in a safe environment,” he said. “Restaurants can do it without issues inside or outside and maintain the requirements. All restaurants are a controlled environment. That is why we have to follow sanitation rules.”
Oxbrough said he has reached out to state officials with no response other than he's being heard. “We are the kids in the daycare, and we can't be entrusted to make good choices,” he said.
He has spaced his tables six feet apart and each one is sanitized before someone is seated, if requested, and after a customer leaves. He says his space is limited inside because the restaurant is only 600 square feet. He has blocked off his counter area and its seven stools.
He said many people who get carryout from him walk across the street and sit on park benches on The Circle. “Nobody is out there cleaning park benches. Wouldn't you want them to be in a controlled environment where it's going to be safer?” he asked.
Cafe on the Circle's business has changed dramatically due to the shutdown of state and county offices around The Circle. “My breakfast business is slow, but my lunch business has increased dramatically,” he said. “I'm a small guy with limited overhead, so I can make it. There are larger ones out there that are dying.”
He said the restaurant association says about a third of restaurants across the country will not reopen or survive pandemic restrictions. “It's all because we can't be entrusted to maintain the quality standards we've always followed,” he said.
Oxbrough said he's not worried about possible action against him by state officials. “If they ask me to stop, I'll tell them no,” he said. “I'm still following safety mandates and physical distancing.”
Oxbrough said he struggles with the term essential. “Nobody I've talked with can determine how a big box store can put up 6-foot tape and limit physical distancing better than a restaurant or any type of business for that matter,” he said.
“All I'm saying is trust us to do the right thing. We've been well informed of the standards,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit more than his business. Oxbrough and his wife, who live in Dagsboro, have a son who is a senior at Indian River High School, who, along with more than 1,000 other Sussex County seniors, will have missed nearly four months of their last year of high school.
Editor’s note: This story originally incorrectly said seating would be available inside and outside. Seating will be available outside only.