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Restaurants adapt to ‘new normal’

Owners across US encouraged as states ease restrictions

Staff photo / Allie Vugrincic JD’s Posthouse waiter Aaron Fall of Windham brings baked potatoes to Charlotte and Doug Wolfert of Champion on Saturday evening. The restaurant reopened for dine-in traffic May 29.

As the nation continues to stabilize following the COVID-19 outbreak, many state leaders are allowing doors to reopen for a return to how life was before the pandemic began. One key element to achieving that normality for some is the reopening of restaurants across the country.

While states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania have allowed their restaurants to offer dine-in services again — while maintaining strict social-distancing guidelines — others, such as Maryland, have yet to move past outdoor dining only. Even so, the move to reopen in any capacity has proved encouraging for some restaurant owners across the country.

OHIO

In March, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine closed all bars and restaurants from hosting patrons but, like other states, did allow businesses to offer takeout 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.

JD’s Posthouse in Champion waited to open to dine-in traffic until May 29, continuing to provide takeout while working on remodeling, which includes the addition of a bar, according to manager Briana Salgado.

Saturday evening, the family-style restaurant was busy with a dinner rush.

“The dinner rush, with getting back on our feet, it’s been good,” Salgado said.

The Mosora family was out to dinner for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, celebrating Kim Mosora’s birthday at JD’s.

“I didn’t have to cook,” Mosora said.

She, her husband, Jeff, and daughter, Kaitlyn, said they felt comfortable in the restaurant and were happy to be back out in public.

Charlotte and Doug Wolfert, eating dinner more than the recommended 6 feet away from other dinners, also were thrilled to be out of the house.

“It was fun at first staying in the house and not doing anything, but it got old,” Charlotte said. “People love other people.”

Operating under guidelines means servers and hostesses wear masks, and the restaurant that already prided itself on its cleanliness is doing even more sanitizing, Salgado said. JD’s also now is using paper menus, which means customers can take home a copy if they like.

It is operating with just less than half of its tables — the others are marked off with signs reading “this table is closed due to social distancing.”

There is no capacity limit for restaurants to follow as they open 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 restaurant employees must wear facial coverings and complete a daily COVID-19 symptom assessment. Finally, extensive cleaning recommendations must be followed.

PENNSYLVANIA

Lena’s Cafe in Altoona, Pa., has been in business for 80 years. Casey Higgins is the third-generation owner of the family restaurant, which never has 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 it has sold more than 300 pans of frozen lasagna. The restaurant also is 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.

Higgins plans 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.

“That’s a problem for a lot of small family places,” he said. “We pack people in — that’s how we make money.”

WEST VIRGINIA

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, W.Va., establishment, which was opened half a century ago by his father.

“It never even entered my mind,” he said.

“It was scary at first,” DiCarlo said, “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 doing about 40 percent of its normal business through takeout in late March, he said. That amount gradually rose 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 “mainly because the weather was still not too great.”

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. DiCarlo said the business over the last two weeks has been split pretty evenly between dine-in and takeout.

Tables at Mario’s no longer are 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.”

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