MOUNT VERNON — Across Knox County, inside dining service for local restaurants reopened Thursday, their owners and managers acknowledging that while it’s good to be back, two months of closure related to COVID-19 precautions has been a hardship. Adjusting to reduced seating to follow social distancing guidelines is one more cross to bear.
At the Italian eatery Mazza’s in Mount Vernon, co-owner Mike Mazza said an emphasis on six feet between tables, and cleanliness guidelines for disinfecting and sanitation, has been painstakingly adhered to but necessary. Every other table in a booth along the walls is closed within the main dining area. Additionally, six of eight tables removed from the floor area have been “transitioned” into the banquet room.
“But right now, we don’t have any banquets going on,” Mazza said, adding part of the reason for that is banquets typically involve 30 to 50 people in an area designed for social occasions.
And while it might be possible to put two tables together for a maximum of 10 people, Mazza said there’s no getting around the fact that Mazza’s, with a normal restaurant and bar seating capacity of 275 people, has been reduced to less than half that to meet state guidelines. Mazza’s has decided to go above and beyond state guidelines to keep its customers safe and comfortable, he emphasized.
Where disinfecting is concerned, Mazza noted that butcher paper is placed on top of tables, with no tablecloth on top as before. The butcher paper is removed and the tables sanitized between seatings. Also, Mazza noted that silverware, napkins, plates and glassware are not placed on tables until customers are seated. Employees including hosts, wait staff and bar staff all wear masks.
“Fortunately, we had some really good months going into all of this in December, January and February,” he said.
During the statewide restaurant closures for inside dining that began March 15, Mazza’s, likely many restaurants, started a curbside carry-out business at its carport, which did not exist before. Mazza’s does not have outdoor dining seats, which reopened for restaurants May 15.
“The neat thing for us is that this has uncovered a new business model (for carry-out), and the customers like it so much that we will keep doing it,” he said.
At the Bad Apple Pub in Apple Valley, owner Jeff Boucher said social distancing requirements have reduced his seating from 283 to 200, a reduction of nearly 30 percent. He and his daughter, Niki, the general manager, showed an area where they have had to place chairs and tables that have been removed from the dining areas — including five four-seat tables. The restaurant consists of two dining areas, a bar, and an outside patio area that has been reduced from 137 to 85 seats.
“When you really make your money is when you’re at full capacity, not at two-thirds being full capacity,” Boucher said.
To make matters even more difficult, he said, at least for now, the state reversed its position over the course of a few days and decided small bands for musical entertainment — which Bad Apple Pub has offered customers, both on the patio and inside the restaurant — are not permitted.
Boucher said like many Ohio restaurants, he had to emphasize carry-out business once inside and outside dining was closed. Starting March 23, he had to temporarily lay off many of his 21 workers. All but a few have come back, and he qualified and received a loan through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program.
“We’re excited to be back. Last week it was raining so we couldn’t open the patio, and we couldn’t yet seat people in here,” he said.
Boucher noted did that customers, for the time being, as restaurants start reopening, are likely going to be a bit timid about dining in. Bad Apple’s lunch crowd was sparse but that can happen on a Thursday, Boucher said, with weekend customers picking up as summer approaches.
Bar business is essential for the Bad Apple Pub, accounting for 45 percent of business, Boucher said. Mazza’s and Bad Apple Pub have handled their bar seating much differently, with Mazza’s completely removing seats at the bar and with all seating in nearby tables. Mazza said that it takes away the social distancing enforcement burden from his employees. Bad Apple’s horseshoe-shaped bar, meanwhile, was busy Thursday.
Boucher said he consulted Knox Public Health, the county prosecutor, and later, his own legal counsel. His bar seats up to 10 people, and his legal counsel informed him that a bar with that number of people can be considered a small group that falls within in the legal definition for allowable gatherings. Dining tables are spaced six or more feet from the bar.
“Jeff Boucher of the Bad Apple Pub did talk with (county) environmental health staff who went over his (reopening) plan and approved his set up,” KPH spokesperson Pam Palm said. “Restaurants and bars do not have to submit a plan, but are encouraged to talk with the staff to make sure they understand the guidelines and got get clarification on some of the requirements.”
At The Hangout in Danville, seating has been reduced from about 130 in the restaurant to 100, said Rebecca Stover, who owns the business with her husband, Paul. The Hangout staff has removed some of its tables and chairs to accommodate the social distancing order of six feet between tables. To meet cleanliness guidelines, the restaurant closes from 3-5 p.m. so all floor staff, usually four of them, can sanitize all tables and fixtures.
The Hangout’s bar has handled seating differently than Mazza’s or Bad Apple Pub. There were just three chairs offered Thursday — each given plenty of space between the others. Normally, the bar would seat up to 25 people, Stover said. The Hangout also offers separate entries for dine-in customers and take-out orders.
Customer Scott Mickley, having lunch Thursday at The Hangout with one of his sons, Tyler, said he feels safer dining in Danville than he would in a restaurant in a large city such as Columbus. If the lunch crowd had been packed on its first day back, he offered their choice to dine in might have been different. But there was a sparse lunch crowd Thursday, and they had an area unto themselves.
Mickley said the COVID-19 virus is as perplexing in what health officials relay. He noted that just in the past few days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued new guidance stating that the coronavirus cannot survive on surfaces for more than a few hours — much different than earlier warnings that it could last for days. But at the same time, he added he has family members of his own who have contracted COVID-19.
“So I know there’s something there,” he said about the importance of safety and taking precautions.
At Taste of Country, a combined restaurant and food store in Fredericktown, most of the few dine-in tables have been removed. About all that’s left is window seating. An upstairs dining area was also closed, Manager Emily Helmick said, as tables were close together. Employees who work making sandwiches in the deli area, and at the hot food bar, follow precautions that include wearing masks, gloves and having their hair pulled up. Many of the food items for sale are on shelves or refrigerated units.
“We still have our deli going strong and all of our normal food items, with some new ones added,” she said.
Not all prominent Knox County restaurants have reopened. Some are undergoing remodeling or still working on their reopening plans.
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