A Winters Tale: The color Purple

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Everyone knows the word “mirage.”  

It conjures up the image of a desperately thirsty man crawling along the desert floor who suddenly spots an oasis in the distance.

He arrives, however, to find there’s no water. It was all an illusion. His eyes were playing tricks on him.

Well, lately a mirage has been appearing here in Winters.

You will see it on Friday nights between 6 and 9 p.m.

I first witnessed it a couple of weeks ago. That evening was gloriously clear, with a starry sky, light breeze, smokeless breathable air.

I had gone to Rotary Park to play cornhole with friends.

It was a familiar routine–beer from Hooby’s, a lot of laughs, and my friend Danno and I losing in the first round to far more serious and seasoned cornholers.

But something was different.

The park was busy.  Families had thrown down blankets and were sipping wine together.

A gaggle of 10 year olds burst out of nowhere and began tackling the gazebo.

And in the cordoned off Main Street, tables were filled. 

 Lit by strings of twinkly lights, diners laughed and drank, and listened to a live band.

“This is what it used to be like,”  one woman said to me.

“It almost feels like normal,” said another.  

I didn’t have the heart to tell them it was all a mirage.

For despite the merriment on the street, things were nowhere near normal.

In fact, before their very eyes, the restaurants on Main Street were dying a slow death.  

Despite outward appearances, and local owners putting on the bravest faces possible, serving food on picnic tables in the middle of the street is a business model which is unsustainable.

As of this writing, under the state’s COVID color chart, Winters is still “purple.”

As my colleague Richard Casavecchia often notes, had the number of virus cases been sensibly analyzed, Winters would have been labeled “red” weeks ago.

But even under the “red” rules (25 percent indoor occupancy), a restaurant cannot survive for long. To borrow Richard’s words, anyone with half a brain knows that.

Not to put not too fine a point on it, Winters is in danger of losing more restaurants if this continues, including the one which has put our town on the map.

If you think the Buckhorn is immune to extinction simply because of its heritage and prestige, its landmark status, and all that it means to the community,  read what happened to another local institution, victimized by similar onerous restrictions which don’t seem to be easing up, or make much sense.

See if you see any similarities.

The Sunset Restaurant had been run by four generations of one family for the past 60 years in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a state whose COVID policy is not unlike California’s.

Owner Mike Fratantuono told his story to the Washington Post saying that  although the virus is real, “our national hysteria is worse.”

When the governor shut everything down in March, Mike and his family used the opportunity to remodel, hoping that when the shutdown ended, the Sunset would reopen better than ever.

After a long while, the state finally allowed them to open, but only for take-out. This barely covered their costs.

How many people do you know who are willing to spend $40 on a lukewarm steak that’s traveled halfway across town?” asked Mike.  

By May, revenue was down 80 percent, 75 people, mostly locals, were laid off.

When outdoor dining was allowed, Mike roped off the street, but the weather was too hot and few people came.

From the state and local government there was no support. Only more rules.

Allowed to open indoors at 50 percent, they were told they must close at 10 p.m.

“I guess maybe COVID comes out at 10:01,” he said.

He had to spend money on disinfectant, individual ketchup packets, personal salt and pepper shakers, or be fined.

And he tells the story of a woman who couldn’t get seated because 50 percent of tables were already occupied. 

As revenge, she called the police, who rushed in to see if the Sunset was in violation of the rules, a fine use of local law enforcement.

 “We allowed the virus to take over our economy, our small businesses, our schools, our social lives, our whole quality of life. We surrendered, and now everything’s infected,” Mike told the Post.

At the end of summer, Mike too had to surrender. 

After six decades in business, the venerable Sunset Restaurant shut for good.

What happened there can happen here.

Lets try to see beyond the mirage.

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