Georgia restaurants have been given the green light to reopen their dining rooms on Monday, but that is unlikely to happen in metro Atlanta on Gov. Brian Kemp's proposed timeline, based on reactions from local food-service operators.
Reopened businesses will have to follow social distancing guidelines, screen workers for fever and respiratory illnesses, and take other steps to minimize the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. Specific guidelines are still forthcoming and are expected to be released Thursday.
Restaurants throughout the state have been closed for dine-in service since April 1, when Kemp issued statewide social distancing measures, one of the last of the nation's governors to do so. By then, numerous metro Atlanta restaurant operators had already made the voluntary decision to close their dining rooms and patios to customers or had done so in response to mandates by city mayors. Some transitioned to a takeout-and-delivery model, and even revamped their operations to include other channels for cash flow, such as online marketplaces. Others temporarily closed down with the hopes of reopening once the threat of contracting the virus has passed.
Kemp’s sudden loosening of restrictions has left many restaurant operators questioning how, if or when they can safely reopen. Some in metro Atlanta say a Monday opening date is not feasible or prudent, while others, like Waffle House — the ubiquitous chain known for quickly reopening after disasters — are waiting for more guidance from Kemp and health officials before making a decision.
“The guidelines hopefully will mirror the best practices for keeping people safe,” said Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association. Bremer added that Georgia restaurants are already in a period of serving customers. “We are already in a state of ‘open’: That is delivery and carryout.”
Suzanne Vizethann, chef-owner of Buttermilk Kitchen in Chastain, does not plan to reopen anytime soon.
“It’s insane. It’s almost just as stressful as when we got the news of the (dine-in) closure,” she said of Kemp’s latest orders.
For the past month, Vizethann’s Southern comfort spot has pivoted from a breakfast and brunch model to one relying exclusively on curbside, e-commerce, and catering services.
“We feel like we just got in a good rhythm. We’ve got a system. We turned the living room and dining room into a fulfillment center,” she said.
Vizethann does not plan to open for in-house dining for at least another month. “We simply do not feel safe, nor are we ready to open back up in days of getting the news.
“We reinvented ourselves overnight, and now we’ll have to do it again,” she said. “I feel like the restaurant industry never gets a break.”
Other metro Atlanta restaurant owners — from single-unit operators to large groups like Ford Fry's Rocket Farms and Fifth Group, who employ hundreds of workers — share Vizethann's concern that it is too soon to open doors.
Shortly after Kemp’s Monday press conference, Hugh Acheson, who operates restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, took to social media. “I will open when I weigh science and risk and have the confidence that I can do this correctly and safely for my employees and the people I serve,” Acheson tweeted.
After Kemp’s announcement, Manuel’s Tavern owner Brian Maloof was inundated with questions from regulars about when he would open. “All of our experience and the wisdom of some really smart people that work at the tavern think it is way too early. As much as I would like to be open, it’s not happening. Being closed has not been fun but it’s been the safest, best thing we could do for our staff and customers,” he shared on Facebook. Maloof hopes to open his Virginia-Highland restaurant soon, but only for to-go service.
Some operators, like Blair Huckeba of Pour Kitchen and Bar in Brookhaven, are looking to health care professionals rather than elected government officials for best practices.
“We will continue to monitor and evaluate in the coming weeks and heed the advice from the medical community,” said Huckeba.
Many restaurateurs said that they cannot make any decision about reopening until guidelines are released by Kemp’s task force.
“Until we have that, we don’t know,” said Gianni Betti of Cibo e Beve in Sandy Springs. “We need to know if a server has to wear gloves, masks. We need more information.”
He and business partner Linda Harrell have ideas for how to enable social distancing, which include removing some tables and chairs, lengthening hours of operation to allow for more staggered seating of guests and limiting kitchen staff to three cooks.
But the question of whether the virus can be spread throughout the dining room through ventilation perplexes him. “How do you control that?”
Kemp’s task force is comprised of a 20-person committee, including Waffle House executive Joe Rogers III. He is the only member of the committee from the restaurant industry.
Waffle House, whose chairman vocally opposed a business closure mandate in Atlanta, is also awaiting Kemp’s executive order that spells out the plan, said company spokesman Njeri Boss. “… Any ramp up in business will be gradual, including the return of jobs, so that we can make sure that our business accurately reflects the realities of customer decision making.”
Restaurant operators also wonder whether people will be willing to dine in.
Tiffany Bolen, a Kennesaw resident, estimated that she’s ordered takeout about twice a week since the coronavirus hit Georgia. But she said she would think twice about ordering from restaurants that had reopened their dining rooms. With dine-in customers added to the mix, Bolen said she “won’t know what’s going on inside the restaurant, so I’m leery of even ordering takeout.”
Bolen said she’d feel much more comfortable dining out once a vaccine becomes widely available.
Asian countries that were hit hard early by the coronavirus could offer a glimpse into our dining future. Last week, celebrity chef David Chang tweeted a request for diners in recovering locales like Taipei, Hong Kong, South Korea and China to send photos and information about new safety measures implemented by local restaurants. Responses showed a range of protocols, from free hand sanitizer at tables to masked and gloved servers to temporary partitions rising between booths. Some measures were extreme, including a machine in Shanghai that automatically sprays disinfectant over each diner’s entire body or waitstaff disinfecting table settings in boiling water tableside, watched by the diners who would use them.
“It shouldn’t be a race to open restaurants,” said Michelle and Gerry McCrudden of Liberty Pizza in Marietta.
The couple does not plan to reopen the dining room to patrons April 27. Instead, they will continue with call-in orders, takeout, curbside pickup and food delivery along with selling beer and wine to go “until such time as the public health crisis has passed.”
Staff writer Henri Hollis contributed to this report.
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