Service Industry Reopens With Cautious Optimism
By KATHLEEN SHAW
Daily News-Record 5/15/20
No longer is sitting on the patio sipping a margarita or savoring a hot bed of fries on the wooden deck a pipeline dream. Grab your sunscreen and ask for a table under the patio umbrella because beginning today, May 15, some dining and drinking establishments are reopening to allow outdoor patronage.
After nearly two months of businesses serving strictly to-go and delivery, Gov. Ralph Northam’s “ Phase One” of reopening eases public health restrictions today and allows patrons to dine outside a restaurant and beverage establishments that have a pre-approved outdoor service area.
According to the governor’s guidelines, outdoor dining is acceptable at 50% occupancy and businesses must maintain 6 feet of physical distancing with increased cleaning and sanitation practices for high-contact surfaces.
Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint in Harrisonburg and Elkton are both opening today with three tables of three on the patios stationed 10-feet apart. Because of the limited seating on a first-come, first-serve basis, owner Aaron Ludwig said guests can join a waiting list and station themselves in cars or walk around town until notified by phone.
Harrisonburg Police Department and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance have coordinated with businesses to stay informed and circulate safe opening practices. Ludwig said businesses have been very communicative and encouraging about the transition to outdoor service, so he is hopeful opening will go smoothly.
“Everyone is sharing good practice stories of what they’re doing, so we’re all on kind of on the same page of what we’re doing to keep everybody comfortable and safe, so that’s been a really nice thing,” he said. “We have locations in other states, so I see kinda what’s been happening in Tennessee and North Carolina and Alabama; so I feel like it’s the right time and I like the idea of the limited seating and all the precautions we need to be taking in order to get open, but we need to start doing something. We need to start getting some business coming in. A lot of people’s [Paycheck Protection Program] money is starting to run out.”
Several area wineries are jumping at the opportunity to reopen, such as Brix and Columns Vineyards and Bluestone Vineyard. Bluestone is inviting wine lovers to the Bridgewater venue with bottle sales only and a limited menu. The balcony and patio can accommodate between 50 to 60 people and additional seating options on the vineyard green can situate nearly 80 guests, according to Bluestone president Curt Hartman.
“It’ll be really nice to see people back in the winery again. That’s something our staff is really looking forward to. One person said, ‘it’s not supposed to be this way.’ It’s kind of quiet and lonely in here with none of our regular customers yet,” Hartman said. “It’s also difficult from a society standpoint for people to stay cooped up.”
Bluestone Vineyard announced its plans to open today on Thursday morning. Hartman said within a few hours, several reservations rolled in, but he assumes majority of people will be cautious about returning to a public space.
“We assume that the whole world is going to be just dying to get out here and trampling to get here. I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a lot of people still worried about being in public because of the virus. I think that people are going to be slow to start getting out,” he said.
Bluestone Vineyard guests are asked to wear masks when moving around the establishment, and the vineyard is selling masks for $2 each for those who arrive without one. Overall, Hartman said he is excited to reopen and continue serving the public, but he fears for the second wave of infections if people are not cautious.
“We want to do everything we can to help prevent a return of COVID at the levels it was before and certainly Virginia is not seeing it decrease much, so we don’t feel too confident that it’s impossible for it to come back, so we’re going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t,” Hartman said. “We are taking every measure we can think of to make sure our guests don’t get the virus while they’re here; that our employees don’t get sick from working. We want to make sure everyone is healthy.”
While some breweries such as The Friendly Fermenter are unable to open due to no outdoor seating, those that can, such as Brothers Craft Brewing and Restless Moons Brewing, are limiting patio capacity to optimize the space between guests.
On the driveway and patio of Brothers Craft Brewing, four separate outdoor sitting areas have been established at maximum occupancy of 10 patrons and each sitting area is divided 6-feet apart.
Brothers Craft Brewing taproom manager Josh Harold said the consensus of downtown businesses seems to be cautious optimism where there are sure to be bumps along the road before operations run like a well-oiled machine again, but guidelines are also clear and should be easy to follow.
“I think everybody might be a little nervous about the people that might not be keeping up with exactly what ‘Phase One’ means or they might have the preconceived notion that this is like flipping the switch back on and they can go back out to their favorite places and things return to normal,” Harold said. “There’s going to be mistakes, I’m sure. There will be things we’ll learn from it.”
Some businesses have chosen to delay opening for safety measures and additional preparation, while those who do not have access to an established patio area are forced to remain closed.
CrossKeys Vineyards is scheduled for reopening May 22. During its closure, Cross-Keys took on various aesthetic updating projects, according to Babak Bakhtiar, director of marketing. He said this following week will focus on training staff for additional sanitation measures and he expects a large outpour of customers returning to the vineyard.
“I think it’s going to be very, very busy. We’ve gotten a lot of calls. … The phone has been ringing off the hook,” Bakhtiar said. “We’re encouraging reservations. I think that’s the only way we’ll be able to control how many people are going to be able to come out. So, we already have upwards of 15 to 20 reservations for next weekend, and we just made that announcement yesterday.”
CrossKeys can legally hold 150 people according to the new guidelines, but Bakhtiar said the vineyard is going to cap patrons at a 100-person limit for the first week. Service is also being modified to reduce interactions with patrons and staff. Rather than table-side service, one member from each party will go to the tasting bar to place orders for the entire group.
Cuban Burger on Water Street is among several small eateries on the block unable to open for dine-in service due to a lack of outdoor seating. Owner Steve Pizarro said he is happy for his neighbors who can expand their services, but with a pregnant wife, he plans to delay opening until late June or early July after her delivery.
“I understand the desire to want to get open and get back to work and kind of fight against this in a more proactive way rather than sitting at home, but it is a microscopic thing, and I don’t know. I figure our instincts are to swing at it, and that’s not something it’s very effective against,” he said. “Metaphorically, going back to work, opening up the economy is a way of kind of being proactive and fighting against an enemy in a way, but it’s a virus, it’s not a foreign military.”