Restaurants adjust to new normal as states begin to lift restrictions
As the nation continues to stabilize following the COVID-19 outbreak, many state leaders are allowing doors to re-open for a return to how life was before the pandemic began. One key element to achieving that normality for some is the re-opening of restaurants across the country.
While Ohio and Utah have allowed their restaurants to offer dine-in services again — while maintaining strict social distancing guidelines — other states, such as Maryland, have yet to move past outdoor dining only. Even so, the move to re-open in any capacity has proved encouraging for some restaurant owners across the country.
“I feel like I’m really fortunate because there are a lot of restaurants that will never be able to open up again,” said Candace Hornstein, owner of a cafe in North Dakota. “I’m pretty lucky.”
Even when Mario’s Restaurant and Lounge had to close to in-person dining in March, owner Dan DiCarlo didn’t think the end was in sight for the Weirton establishment, which was opened half a century ago by his father.
“It never even entered my mind,” he said.
“It was scary at first,” admitted DiCarlo, “but then once we started realizing the takeout business we were doing, it was like, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.'”
The Italian restaurant that employs about 50 people was only doing approximately 40 percent of its normal business through takeout in late March, he said. That amount gradually increased to closer to 50 percent.
Although West Virginia restaurants were able to offer outdoor dining in early May, DiCarlo elected not to go that route.
But when restrictions on indoor dining were relaxed, Mario’s opened to customers on May 26. About a quarter of the restaurant’s workers, mostly wait staff, had been laid off, but most are back now, DiCarlo said.
With capacity limited to 50 percent, Mario’s can seat about 80 people now. DiCarlo said the business during the last two weeks has been pretty evenly split between dine-in and takeout.
“I think still a lot of people are kind of hesitant” about going out during the pandemic, he said.
Tables at Mario’s are no longer pre-set with silverware and salt, pepper and cheese shakers. Once customers order, menus are taken back and sanitized. Servers also wear masks.
“Some people feel that it may not get back to normal for a long time,” DiCarlo said. “Some people say forever.”
DiCarlo said he’s grateful for customers’ support by ordering takeout while the restaurant was unable to fully reopen.
In March, Gov. Mike DeWine closed all bars and restaurants from hosting patrons but, like other states, did allow businesses to offer take out and delivery. Now, all restaurants are able to have dining services by following guidelines set by the Ohio Department of Health.
Restaurants were able to allow outdoor dining on May 15 and dine-in service resumed on May 21.
There is no capacity limit for restaurants to follow as they open up dining rooms, but they must keep 6 feet between parties when waiting and dining. If that’s not possible, they must install barriers. The maximum number of individuals in a party is 10.
All employees for restaurants must wear facial coverings and complete a daily COVID-19 symptom assessment. Finally, extensive cleaning recommendations also must be followed.
Lena’s Cafe in Altoona has been in business for 80 years. Casey Higgins is the third-generation owner of the family restaurant, which has never seen challenges like the one brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve all worked harder than we’ve ever worked at the restaurant,” Higgins said.
After most businesses and restaurants were closed in March, Lena’s opened for takeout and curbside pickup, Higgins said. Since then, they’ve sold more than 300 pans of frozen lasagna. They’re also selling quarts of soup, trays of meatballs and family-style meals, “just to scrape every nickel and dime we can,” Higgins said.
“We just had to adjust,” he said. “It was trial and error to see what worked and what didn’t work. Customers have been great about it. We haven’t really had any complaints.”
Much of the state has entered into the “green phase” of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, which allows for restaurants to open at 50 percent capacity. The more densely populated areas of the southeastern part of the state remain in the more restrictive yellow phase.
Higgins planed to open the cafe to dining over the weekend to see how it goes. The capacity and spacing regulations could be problematic for a place like his, as it’s a “very small footprint,” he said.
“That’s a problem for a lot of small family places,” he said. “We pack people in – that’s how we make money.”
Most of the state moved Friday into its second phase of reopening, which allows restaurants to open up for dining at half the seating capacity. Northern Virginia and Richmond, however, remain in phase one.
Bonnie Blue Southern Market & Bakery in Winchester has opened its outdoor patio for people to dine outside, but they have yet to open the dining room, according to spokesperson Matt Pellatt. Some of the restrictions for opening the dining room include spacing 6 feet apart and wearing masks.
“We’re waiting to see if they’ll amend the restrictions to make it easier on everybody,” Pellatt said.
In the beginning of the pandemic, the business’s numbers were down, he said.
“People were scared to leave their house, let alone order food from a restaurant,” Pellatt said. “Once people started to get used to it and realized how long we we’re going to be stuck like this, they started ordering for curbside pickup.”
Residents in Florida have been getting used to the “new normal” for a few weeks now, as restaurants are open at 50 percent capacity. Most of the state moved into its phase two of reopening, which allows bars to open at 50 percent capacity as well, or full capacity outdoors.
Florida restaurants will also be able to start serving at bars, as long as chairs and barstools are spaced 6 feet apart.
In Lawrence, restaurants were allowed to reopen for dine-in services on May 18, per the orders of the local health department, but there are still numerous restaurants that have decided not to do so.
Kate Gonzalez, co-owner of Global Cafe, said she wanted to take her time figuring out how to reopen in a safe way, and she worries that dine-in services might be more costly than the curbside service they are currently offering.
“We are suffering financially but also I don’t feel like opening the doors to the public is the solution for that,” Gonzalez said.
She would need to have more staff working, and she is not allowed to fill her space to capacity, per county regulations on social distancing.
Despite these fears, Gonzalez plans to reopen for dine-in service on June 11, noting that the restaurant also won’t survive just off curbside service orders. She hopes dine-in service will be more profitable than she anticipates.
Meg Hariford of Ladybird Diner hasn’t reopened her restaurant to the public because she is busy offering free lunches to community members in need, a service she has done since the start of the pandemic. Hariford said it would be too difficult to offer dine-in services at the same time, and that she will continue serving free lunches through this month and possibly into July.
“I still feel like I’m feeding people and connecting people, just in a different way than before,” she said.
In Utah, restaurants were allowed to reopen dine-in services on May 1. Gov. Gary Herbert relaxed some restrictions on the date, moving the state from a red “high risk” level to an orange “moderate risk” level. On May 16, Herbert and the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission moved all areas of the state — save three counties and three cities — to the yellow “low risk” stage.
Bailey Lefthand, marketing and communications director for the Ogden-Weber Chamber of Commerce, said that overall, she believes most businesses are doing OK reopening, but that smaller restaurants are having more challenges meeting the guidelines, which include limiting tables to groups of 10 and making sure patrons are 6 feet apartment from those at other tables.
After stay-at-home orders closed dining rooms to the public in New Hampshire, some opted to continue business via delivery and carry out.
For Millyard Brewery in Nashua, customers were able to order and pick up growlers of beer. Like other restaurants with outdoor seating, the nano-brewery was able to welcome the public back on May 18 as long as its outdoor tables were 6 feet apart. Other precautions for re-opening in the state include face coverings for servers and a limit of six people seated at a table.
The owner of the brewery, who declined to be identified, said he’s taking it a step further and only providing disposable cups so his wait staff so they don’t have to handle used glasses.
“That, to me, has got to be more dangerous than just kind of standing in someone’s face,” the owner said. “Just these last few weeks here we’ve been able to open up and actually have patrons come outside and drink beer.”
He said some of his staff have decided not to return to work because the city is so close to the border of Massachusetts, where there is a higher number of COVID-19 cases.
“We’ve got people coming from Massachusetts all the time — they’re wanting to get out as much as everyone,” the owner said. “It’s concerning … but we’ve got to make money, so we’ve got to open.”
He said that his biggest concern will come when fall and winter approach, especially if restaurants aren’t allowed to have indoor dining.
“When winter comes along and it gets cold, you can’t have outdoor seating, so your revenue disappears again,” he said before adding that he hopes the rain stays away so customers can continue to enjoy the outdoor seating.
On May 29, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announced the state would move into the next phase of the “ND Smart Restart” plan. The state is currently moving to a low-risk level, one step before returning to the “new normal.”
Candace Hornstein, owner of Coffee Cottage Cafe in Rugby, was not able to do takeout during the months that dining-in wasn’t permitted at restaurants throughout the state.
Restaurants were previously permitted to seat 50 percent of their normal capacity but that number has increased to 75 percent. Spacing by 6 feet is still necessary for tables, but now in the low-risk level, tables may seat more than 10 at a time.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it because there was no money coming in but the bills were still coming in,” Hornstein said. “It’s pretty scary but I’m feeling better about it now. When we were at 50 percent, we were only open from eight to two.”
She said the month was slow but business seems to be picking up more every day now that her cafe is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Also in North Dakota, bars can have standing room occupancy, while still allowing social distancing, and pool tables and dart boards may be used as long as they are disinfected between uses.
Hornstein said she doesn’t expect this summer to go like last summer, as the local fairs and festivals have been canceled.
“The summer was always my busiest time of the year and that’s what got me through the winter,” she said. “That isn’t going to happen this year, so I’m just going to have to keep a skeleton crew for a while, I think.”
She said the tables no longer have salt and pepper shakers or ketchup containers and they’re being provided in single-use packets. After every customer leaves, the tables and booths are disinfected and Hornstein is keeping hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes by the door.
“I feel like I’m really fortunate because there are a lot of restaurants that will never be able to open up again,” Hornstein said. “I’m pretty lucky.”
The Wine Kitchen on Carroll Creek in downtown Frederick had just 36 hours from the announcement that outdoor dining would be allowed to resume when owner Jason Miller welcomed his first customers under those guidelines on May 29.
“We made it happen,” Miller said.
It helped that the business’s location in Leesburg, Virginia, was serving customers outside, “so we had already developed a lot of procedures that we adopted here,” he said.
Among those procedures are using a mister to sanitize tables after customers leave, as well as options for touch-less menus and payments.
Instead of picking up a physical menu, customers can scan a QR code from a card on the table and look at the menu on their smartphone, Miller said. When it’s time to pay, customers receive a receipt with a unique QR code allowing them to pay online as well.
For those unable to use the electronic option, there are disposable menus available.
“Our first choice is to limit waste, and the more we can limit our staff standing at the table is better for everybody,” he said.
The Wine Kitchen has around 20 employees, half its pre-COVID-19 level, Miller said. The patio can accommodate 28 diners maintaining social distance, which is half its normal capacity.
Miller would like to see that increase with the city of Frederick offering multiple options for restaurants to expand their outdoor seating capacity on city sidewalks, parking spaces, private property, closed streets and city parks, alleys and lots.
“The town of Frederick has been really great,” Miller said.
He also appreciates the patience of patrons with the new sanitization procedures in place.
“Everybody has been very kind and very patient because everything takes a little bit longer now,” Miller said.
Maryland counties received the go-ahead from Gov. Larry Hogan’s office last week to enter Stage Two of the state’s recovery plan on Friday. Guidelines for restaurants remain the same, with outdoor dining, pickup and delivery permitted.
The spring and early summer are the time of year when business gets a little more brisk for the Blue Moon Cafe in Saranac Lake.
Things are different, however, during a pandemic.
“Over the course of two days, we went from doing our usual business … to being closed,” said Kenneth Fontana, who has owned the business with his wife, Tricia, for 22 years. “Usually this time of year is spent making up for the winter.”
Instead, revenue dropped to about 25 percent of what was expected, as the neighborhood restaurant offering farm-to-table food, coffee, spirits and baked goods shifted to takeout service only.
“We tried to keep our regular crew working, but we figured out very quickly that we couldn’t,” Fontana said. “We just did whatever we had to do to stay open.”
The staff shrank from 19 employees to just the Fontanas, their chef and his helper. For five weeks, the chef only worked half his regular time.
Deferring some loans helped them get through the first couple months. A payroll protection loan allowed them to bring the chef back full-time and increase the staff to six, Fontana said. And loyal customers have continued to support the cafe through frequent takeout orders and buying gift cards.
On Thursday, New York allowed restaurants to start reopening for outdoor dining. Staff must wear face coverings, and so do customers when they aren’t seated.
Some restaurants weren’t ready to go the first day, but the Blue Moon set up four tables outside, Fontana said. There’s no table service yet. Customers can just eat the food they picked up there instead of taking it with them.
Bringing back servers will depend on volume. For now, “it’s a guessing game,” Fontana said. “We’re trying to be as positive as we can.
“We’ve more or less written off the year, and we’re more or less practicing crisis management – how are we going to get through this year and start the next year with a clean slate, without a lot of debt?” he said.
In Kihei, Maui, Hawaii, the Ohana Seafood Bar & Grill has seen a lot of support from locals, which businesses are depending on right now in what is primarily a tourist area. Restaurants in Maui County were able to open for dine-in on June 1, and Ohana was offering to-go orders prior to that.
“We’ve been open since Monday, and it’s been pretty good,” Ohana Manager Mari Bradley said on Thursday. “We’ve had a lot of locals come out and show support … the customers are just overjoyed to be here … everybody’s very excited to get out.”
Maui County restrictions are not based on capacity, but on social distancing. The tables must be six feet away from each other, and the six-foot rule applies to basically every aspect of food preparation and serving. Customers and employees must also wear masks.
“Unfortunately we still have a 14-day quarantine on people coming from anywhere off island,” Bradley said. “Visitors traveling, even if it’s from another Hawaiian island.”
She said that she expects restrictions to be lifted on June 15 for inter-island travel.
“We’re struggling a bit to break even at this point,” Bradley said. “I think it’s definitely difficult to turn a profit, any real profit, but we are at least able to break even.”
She said she hopes things will improve once travel is allowed again.
“I think that when we get more people here it will make a big difference,” Bradley said. “Hawaii is 90 percent tourism for our income, so that’s been really hard on us right now.”
Things are a bit different in Minnesota, where restaurants are currently only able to serve outdoors with a 50-person maximum on their patios or outdoor seating areas.
Meanwhile, surrounding states have lifted restaurant restrictions, so people have been traveling out of state to dine inside. Another factor that impedes the outdoor dining is the weather, as the plains of Minnesota tend to be very windy. And if it rains, no one comes to eat outside.
“With the social distancing still going on, you can’t have any more than four people at a table,” said Tom Handeland, owner of The Hitching Post in Marshall. “It just makes it very difficult … you never get to 50 people on the patio at any time.”
He said until Gov. Tim Walz allows restaurants to open up at full capacity, “we’re just stuck in this mess. And, what do you do?”
Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce President Brad Gruhot said other restaurant owners are feeling the same way.
“They’re disgusted,” he said. “The outdoor seating component could have been done, probably at the beginning of May instead of the beginning of June.”
Of the 42 restaurants in Marshall, he said about 60 percent are open for outdoor dining.
“They’re not believing the science of the governor right now and the procedure he’s following,” Gruhot added. “They’re upset because every single bordering state that we have is so far ahead of us — Wisconsin, Iowa and both Dakotas.”
He explained that their biggest competitor, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is completely reopen now.
“The Sioux Falls City Council, last Tuesday, voted with a unanimous vote to completely reopen their city without any restrictions,” he said. “No social distancing, no nothing … It’s an hour-and-a-half west of here. People go there all the time.”
He added that the customer base in Marshall is keeping business good for some local eateries.
Mango’s Tequila Bar in Alpena has been operating with a reduced staff and abiding by the 50 percent capacity rule, with indoor and outdoor seating. Customers and employees must wear masks. Owner Arturo Mendez said he normally employs 35 people, but he is down to 17 right now.
“It hasn’t been too bad,” Mendez said of business since reopening. “But it’s not like it was before” the pandemic.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed parts of Northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula to reopen restaurants on May 22, while the rest of the state will be able to open on June 8.
“We wait the entire year for summer,” Mendez said, noting that it is the best season for restaurants to make a profit. “It’s a little bit tough not to seat people when you have open tables.”
(Evan Bevins, Darby Hinkley, Katie Anderson, Lauren Fox and LynAnne Vucovich contributed to this report.)