Maxwell's Beach Cafe takes voluntary two-week break as COVID-19 cases rise

Friday, June 12, 2020

The doors to Maxwell's Beach Cafe opened for the 2020 summer season May 22. They will be closed again — temporarily — starting Monday. The popular restaurant announced Thursday it will voluntarily close for two weeks in light of Dickinson County's recent increases in confirmed cases of COVID-19. It's a decision owner Steven Jensen expects will come at a substantial cost, but it's one he feels is right for his staff and customers.

"This is my decision for my restaurant right now," Jensen said. "And it could be the completely wrong decision —I mean, if someone knows the answers to all this COVID stuff, they should step up and come forward."

Maxwell's is one of many Lakes Area restaurants and bars which rely heavily on summer guest traffic. Jensen stressed he did not intend his decision to reflect on other area business owners who intend to remain open. Rather, he said it's a personal decision he felt compelled to make for his own business.

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"You have to have money to survive but, at the same time, there has to be some kind of balance," Jensen said. "I'm not going to take the risk of getting a staff member sick or one of our great guests sick for some extra money."

Stevens said he had been mulling over the upcoming closure for several days and eventually committed to it Wednesday — that same day, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced capacity restrictions on restaurants and other businesses would be lifted at 8 a.m. Friday. The governor cited decreases in Iowa's hospitalization rates and new cases as evidence of "positive, forward momentum" in the state.

"We need to open up the country and get moving forward, but we just have to take precautions for our staff and guests," Jensen said. "Right now, it's a different time in Dickinson County than it is in the rest of the world. We're the hotspot now."

The Iowa Department of Public Health listed more than 119 total positive cases in Dickinson County as of Friday afternoon — 95 new cases so far this month. The county now has the 22nd highest cases per capita statewide. Gov. Reynolds allowed restaurants to begin dine-in service at half capacity on May 1, but Dickinson County didn't see a new case of COVID-19 until May 20, and local cases had only climbed as high as 24 before the month of June.

"Easing the restrictions has lowered the importance of COVID in people’s minds and almost lulled them into a state that it doesn’t matter anymore, which is incredibly wrong and has drastically increased the spread," Brandon Rohrig, director of Dickinson County Population and Public Health, said. "We don’t have any clusters of cases centralizing around any businesses. Rather, the majority are centralizing through extracurricular activities and people gathering in large groups. This is truly unfortunate, as many of the businesses are being proactive and/or being quick to remove people from work when positive or symptomatic, but that doesn’t stop people from pointing the finger at them."

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Jensen said he was fortunate much of the staff at Maxwell's has been with the cafe for years, which he said allowed them to focus on improved hygiene and cleanliness in their pre-season staff meetings, rather than reviewing menu items or training wait staff. Reservations are now set at two-hour increments to keep groups from gathering at the bar — which was reduced to only six stools — while the tablewares are completely changed out. He said the restaurant staff is not to mingle in large groups outside of work, their temperatures have to be taken before reporting for work as well as at the end of a shift and employees are to immediately report any minor symptom they experience during work. And even though some of his employees have tested positive for COVID-19, Jensen said the virus was likely kept out of the restaurant.

"It turned out that, like, two of the people had it, but they also hadn't worked here because we caught it so early," Jensen said.

Carry-out and dine-in orders are still being taken through the weekend, and Jensen said he's brainstorming creative solutions to move any excess product that can't be frozen. No orders of any kind will be taken during the two-week break. The doors will open again just before the end of the month, and Jensen said the restaurant's current precautions will stay in place. In addition, he doesn't plan to resume seating at full seating capacity until a later date.

"We just want to make people feel safe and have a great time at dinner," Jensen said. "That's what Maxwell's is all about — coming here with your friends, having great food and great conversation."

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