Gulf Coast Businesses Close Amid COVID-19 Outbreaks Among Staff "It is financially tough," says Robert Momberger of Big Time Diner in Mobile, Ala. "Bills still keep on coming. So it really hurts to shut down, but sometimes that's the best thing to do."

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

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Now to the surge in COVID cases in the South, which is taking a toll on multiple fronts. The delta variant is straining public health systems in a region with low vaccination rates. And as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, it is also disrupting commerce.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The Big Time Diner in Mobile, Ala., has been closed since July 23.

ROBERT MOMBERGER: We had 12 people test positive, so we shut down.

ELLIOTT: Robert Momberger owns the neighborhood restaurant that specializes in Southern sides and fresh Gulf seafood. He was sick, too.

MOMBERGER: Oh, yeah. And unfortunately, (unintelligible) COVID, but during the process of COVID, I got pneumonia. That's what I'm trying to get over now.

ELLIOTT: Many of his young workers are not vaccinated, Momberger says. He had only gotten a first dose of the shot. Now he's encouraging employees to get the vaccine. He says the restaurant was already short staffed because of workers leaving the hospitality industry in the pandemic. He says he's been paying an average of 25% more on top of skyrocketing food prices. Now, nearly two weeks out of business is another setback.

MOMBERGER: It is financially tough, yes. Bills still keep on coming. So it really hurts when we have to shut down, but sometimes that's the best thing to do.

ELLIOTT: Big Time Diner is one of several restaurants on the Gulf Coast that have temporarily shuttered because of outbreaks among staff. The region is a hotspot for transmission of the delta variant of COVID. Other businesses are also affected. A Walmart in the Florida panhandle, for instance, closed for cleaning, citing high transmission and low vaccination rates. 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 with 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.

STAN HARRIS: They're going through exposures right now. And they're having to limit their operations just because of COVID in this particular surge. So we want to have an opportunity to turn back the clock and get this under control.

ELLIOTT: Louisiana is coping with the highest per capita rate of new COVID cases in the country, and hospitalizations are breaking records daily. Dr. Catherine Oneal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, says hospitals are struggling to manage staff shortages, regular patients and now the flood of COVID cases.

CATHERINE O'NEAL: When you come inside our walls, it is quite obvious to you that these are the darkest days of this pandemic. We no longer think we're giving adequate care to anybody.

ELLIOTT: She described patients stranded in the ER because no hospital beds are available. Federal disaster medical teams have deployed to the state to help. The only way to alleviate the bottleneck, Oneal says, is getting more people vaccinated and going back to masking. This week, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards made indoor masking mandatory in Louisiana once again.


JOHN BEL EDWARDS: This is having an adverse impact on people's lives today, as we speak. And the least we can do is put a mask on. It is not an onerous burden.

ELLIOTT: Edwards' policy stands in stark contrast to those in other Southern states, where Republican governors have rejected mask mandates. Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi has called the CDC's recent mask guidance foolish. And in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis is accusing the media of stirring up hysteria.


RON DESANTIS: You try to fear monger, you try to do this stuff. They'll talk about hospitalizations. Our hospitals are open for business.

ELLIOTT: 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 spread. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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