Restaurant seating further limited with conditions pushing patrons indoors

Restaurant seating further limited with conditions pushing patrons indoors

Mahoning Valley restaurants and those across the U.S., still trying to recover under restrictions due to the viral outbreak, face a new complication of cold weather that will further limit seating as diners start to move indooors.

Outdoor dining — from patio seating to even temporary tents in parking lots or setting up tables and chairs on sidewalks or in other available space — helped restaurants stem the tide during the warmer months, but the mercury has started to drop.

Some restaurants will extend the outdoor dining as long as possible, but ultimately face the challenge of having to coax patrons back inside, and it’s anyone’s guess how many actually will. That could spell trouble for an industry that has already lost nearly 100,000 U.S. restaurants — or 1 in 6 — since the start of the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association.

“With fall approaching and the temperature changing, you certainly will lose almost all, eventually, of your outdoor seating,” said Joe Cassese, owner of Cassese’s MVR on North Walnut Street in Youngstown. “People don’t want to be outside and it’s understood.”

Cassese’s MVR fared better than some because of the large outdoor area there for their bocce courts and attached banquet center, Cassese said. Carryout helped, too, but his business model, that of providing a dining experience that included drinks before or after dinner, perhaps both, for families, couples and groups was destroyed, he said.

“We have essentially shut down a significant amount of tables to allow for adequate spacing so people are comfortable when they come into eat,” he said.

He said he has seen those patrons who returned have no hesitation on dining indoors.

“They are living their life. They have had enough and they believe we all have to live our lives or we’re not going to be able to move forward,” Cassese said.

Restaurants also are promoting delivery and carryout. Nearly 70 percent of 3,500 restaurants surveyed in September by the National Restaurant Association said they added curbside takeout during the pandemic; 54 percent added delivery.

Ottavio Musumeci, owner and chef at Station Square in Liberty, said his carryout businesses has done well “because a lot of people, maybe older people, they don’t feel comfortable going out.”

Those who go to Station Square could dine inside, on the patio or a 20-by-40 tent Musumeci had installed in the parking lot. Dining under the tent stops today, but the patio will remain open with an electric space heater that keeps the temperature comfortable as long as its at least 40 degrees outside, he said.

Still, capacity dropped from 40 to 25 on the patio to keep appropriate social distancing. Seating was lost at the bar and main dining areas for the same reason. That in turn increased wait times, causing would-be patrons in some instances to leave, he said.

Leo DelGarbino, owner of Leo’s Ristorante in Howland, said his patrons have sought outdoor seating during the pandemic.

“If you asked them in or out, it was automatically out … because of this COVID, 100 percent why,” he said. “Everybody wanted to be out there.”

Leo’s placed some electric heaters and a propane heater with fan on their large outdoor dining area, but it will close eventually.

“We’ll keep it out as long as possible and we put some sides on it, but when it gets too cold and uncomfortable, we’ll just take it down because we have the available space,” DelGarbino said. “I’m not going to fight with Mother Nature.”

It was mid- to late-May when Ohio allowed restaurants to reopen with indoor dining. There is no capacity limit, but restaurants must ensure a minimum of 6 feet between employees and guests. If that’s not possible, they are required to use protective barriers.

New York opened indoor dining Wednesday, restricting capacity to 25 percent. San Francisco did the same Thursday, the same day Chicago raised its indoor capacity from 25 percent to 40 percent, but still limited seating to no more than 50 people in one room.

“We’re all a little apprehensive, but that was the case when we started outdoor dining, too,” said Samantha DiStefano, owner of Mama Fox, a restaurant and bar in Brooklyn.

Mama Fox can only seat 18 people inside at 25 percent capacity, so DiStefano will still rely heavily on her 14 outdoor tables. She thinks many New York restaurants won’t open indoor dining until the limit reaches 50 percent because they can’t cover their costs at 25 percent.

In the meantime, Mama Fox and others are trying to figure out how to extend the outdoor dining season using space heaters, tents, temporary igloos and even blankets. Heat lamps are already in short supply.

Monthly U.S. restaurant sales hit their lowest point in April, when they plunged to $30 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was less than half the amount restaurants made a year earlier. Sales steadily improved as lockdowns ended, carryout demand picked up and states allowed to-go alcohol. U.S. restaurant sales hit $55 billion in August, but that’s still $10 billion less than last year.

Some waiters and kitchen staff have gone back to work. Restaurant employment rose by 3.6 million people over the four months ending in August, according to government data. Still, there were 2.5 million fewer U.S. restaurant workers in August compared to February.



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