ELWOOD — Dozens of framed newspaper front pages and other historic memorabilia still line the walls of the Opera House Pub.
They serve as reminders that the popular restaurant once occupied a central place in the city’s entertainment scene as well as its civic activities.
“We had Kiwanis on Monday nights,” owner Randall Hall said as he leaned against the bar, lined with empty stools, in the restaurant’s main dining room. “We had a lot of school meetings. We had a lot of city meetings here.”
In March, when Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced the state’s first restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, Hall knew he would have to close the doors of the iconic downtown dining spot for good. He broke the news to his eight employees and closed on March 16 – the day Holcomb announced that the first Hoosier had died from the new coronavirus.
“It was a tough decision, but it was the right decision,” Hall said. “We do not want to be any kind of hazard of health to anybody. Until that (pandemic) is over with, I do not want to think about anything that would put anyone at risk. Hopefully we’ll get there one day, but we’re not there today.”
Hall’s plight has been shared by other Madison County eateries known as much for their reputations as community gathering spots as for their distinctive menus.
“It’s more than just a business,” said Clayton Whitson, president and CEO of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s more than just a restaurant. These are the cultural icons that give your communities their flavor.
“These are some of the cultural aspects that make Madison County unique,” he added, “so to see a place like the Opera House Pub in Elwood close its doors permanently as a result of the coronavirus, it really breaks your heart.”
A recent survey by the National Restaurant Association found that in the first six months of the pandemic, nearly one in six restaurants had closed either permanently or on a long-term basis, throwing an estimated 3 million employees out of work. The industry is on track to lose nearly $240 billion in sales by the end of the year.
But officials locally say the price being paid by area businesses – especially restaurants – that are forced to alter their operations goes beyond the dollars and cents of lost revenue and jobs.
“You lose that gathering place aspect,” said Alan Moore, the economic director in Alexandria, where Blueberry Hill Pancake House, another local favorite, has closed indefinitely. “I know several restaurants in northern Madison County that you can go in there and you’re going to know a good amount of people in there and know the owners. It’s definitely tough to lose that.”
With COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths on the rise, the upcoming winter months will be difficult for local restaurants to navigate, especially as outdoor dining ceases as temperatures drop. But Whitson said there are still ways to support the county’s unique local dining spots.
“As you see some more restrictions being put into place, I think it’s more important than ever that we as a community make a conscious choice of where we want to spend our discretionary income,” he said. “Give the gift of an experience. Give the gift of a restaurant gift card. Buy their merchandise. There are many, many ways that we can continue to support them despite the capacity limits that are still in place.”
Hall, who has owned the Opera House building since 1999, said the city administration is helping him with a search for a tenant to take over the 6,500-square-foot space on the Opera House’s first floor.
“COVID has really slowed down the pace of being able to meet in person and walk through and see exactly what the possibilities are,” Elwood Mayor Todd Jones said.
Hall anticipates that the Opera House Pub’s successor will also be a restaurant, and he added that he’s in good financial position to take his time in making a decision.
“We’ll be back, but we’ve got to wait until it’s right and it’s safe,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”