Waffle House CEO said dining rooms may reopen soon

The chain just announced Tuesday it had to temporarily close more than 400 restaurants.

ATLANTA — One of metro Atlanta’s largest restaurant chains, Waffle House, told Channel 2 Action News on Wednesday that it does not know how much longer it can keep people employed.

The chain just announced Tuesday it had to temporarily close more than 400 restaurants.

Waffle House President and CEO Walt Ehmer reached out to Channel 2 News Anchor Jorge Estevez to talk about the ways the family-owned business wants to keep open its doors.

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Ehmer told Estevez that the company is taking the pandemic very seriously and it knows it needs to adjust its stores. It already made some big changes after a worker at a Georgia Waffle House was diagnosed with the deadly virus.

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Ehmer said the company is confident it can put those practices into place to keep all of its customers safe while keeping as many of its employees from losing their livelihood as possible.

"We are trying really hard to provide hours and jobs for people, but when there is no customers, it is hard to continue for a long period of time," Ehmer said.

Still, Ehmer said the closing of more than 400 stores may just be the beginning.

"We are going to try to keep them open as long as we possibly can," Ehmer said.

To prevent further layoffs, Waffle House is proposing allowing restaurants to reopen their dining rooms on a limited basis and with new rules like reducing the number of customers inside at once, practicing enhanced sanitation and maintaining 6 feet of social distance both with their workers and their customers.

Esteves reached out to a medical professional to see if the new scenario is possible.

"To ensure social distancing in that situation is quite challenging," said Chirag Patel, the Assistant Vice President of Population Health at Wellstar. "You don't know who has asymptomatic COVID virus, so that does make it a challenging prospect when you are going to a store or a dry cleaner and going to a restaurant to sit and dine in."

Waffle House officials argue some of the essential businesses people are allowed to visit pose an even greater risk with lack of proper rules in place.

That’s why while following tighter restrictions from health care experts, Waffle House believes that a restaurant that’s half-full can keep people safe while making a difference for America’s working class.

"When people think the economy, people think that is just money," Ehmer said. "No, it's people's lives. People's lives are being ruined and this is going to be a disaster to them, for the working class of this country, for years to come."

Ehmer points out that most Waffle House restaurants have a 40% capacity, so if they get the green light for a portion of that, it will be an even smaller group of dine-in customers at one time.

Ehmer said it’s unclear at this point how long the restaurants can stay open. He said last week, they thought they were down 25% in revenue and this week, they are down 70%. He said if they go down to 90%, he’s not sure the restaurants can stay open, leaving 40,000 people without jobs.

Channel 2 is not taking a position on whether restaurants could or should partially reopen. We fully support the mandate put in place to protect us all. That being said, we understand the fear and frustration of business owners and the many people they employ.

Restaurants across the city have been forced to close in-person dining amid the coronavirus outbreak.