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Reopening Dining ... Or Not 

Humboldt restaurants wrestle with regulations, safety and slim margins

Meredith Maier of Six Rivers Brewery had already put together a plan for her restaurant to follow not only state and OSHA guidelines, like masks for staff and tables 6 feet apart, but a set of house rules, including only admitting those 21 and over, seating at only five tables and offering counter service as opposed to full dining service. But when word came down May 26 that restaurants with safety plans approved by the Humboldt County Emergency Operations Center to open for dine-in service starting May 29, Six Rivers didn't start rolling up the silverware. And it won't until the staff unanimously agrees it should.

The list of dine-in approved restaurants (available at www.northcoastjournal.com along with a link to the county's continually updating list) included 167 establishments by Monday. But while a number of restaurant owners are taking up the challenge of serving customers at their tables and implementing state social distancing and safety regulations, others like Maier aren't making the jump just yet.

"We've been having lots of staff meetings from the beginning," Maier says. "What's everyone's level of comfort? ... I don't want people coming to work and feeling scared. I want them to feel we're doing what's right for us and right for them and keeping their friends and family and our customers safe and healthy." For now, the brewpub will stick to takeout, though it isn't enough to make ends meet.

Maier, who's currently self-quarantined after her boyfriend's coworker tested positive for COVID-19, looks at the daily influx of confirmed cases with concern. "We're just taking every precaution we can. ... It's hitting a little close to home," she added, noting that the McKinleyville Aztec Grill, where customers and staff may have been exposed to an infected person, is just down the road. The high-volume, fast-casual model, she feels, creates more exposure than, say a fine dining establishment like Campground, which announced on Facebook that it was opening Friday.

Lucien Smith, general manager at Campground and its Arcata Plaza sibling Salt, says reservations — strongly recommended so the socially distant seating can be planned out — have been coming in steadily since the announcement. "We are in a very closed environment and we're serving you food and drink, so we need to maintain the strictest practices," says Smith. "We're trying to provide the services the community wants back but doing so in a responsible way."

For Campground, that means serving at only 10 to 12 tables and following all the required guidelines, including masks and single-use gloves for staff, who'll maintain 6 feet of distance. Unless eating or drinking at a table, patrons will be required to wear masks as well. Don't have a mask for making your way to the restroom? Staff will provide one.

"We're still fine-tuning things," says Smith. "It's pretty much like the soft opening of a fine dining restaurant." Along with halting curbside service for a couple of days to prepare for Friday's opening, he says that requires the motto "Semper Gumby, always be flexible and ready to adapt," especially to any new guidelines that come out from the state or county.

Owner Joe Filgas says his wife, Lorrena, who runs day-to-day operations at Cafe Nooner and Cafe Nooner Too, plotted out their plans for dine-in service at the Henderson Center location, from the sanitizing stations already in use for takeout service to the elaborate system of PPE they'd need for the dishwasher to avoid the spray coming off plates. Despite approval from the OES, they're not opening their dining room and will stick with takeout.

"Basically we feel that our safety, our employees' safety, our customers' safety is paramount. We have a customer base in Henderson Center that includes an older demographic," says Joe Filgas, who adds that seeing younger folks traveling in and out of the county and not maintaining social distance raises doubts. He himself has asthma and knows, despite working mostly from home, his wife could potentially become infected without knowing it. "We just feel it's increasing our risk that we don't want to get into at this point."

While he wishes restaurants opening for dine-in success, for Cafe Nooner the risk might not be worth the reward. Social distancing would necessitate serving at only a quarter of the restaurants' tables. "With the margins as small as they are in the industry, it becomes pretty darn hard," he says. And the feedback he's gotten on his social media post about deciding not to open has shown him "overwhelmingly" that his customers aren't ready to eat in restaurants yet.

"You're going to see a major shift in the business model and how these businesses are run as long as COVID is around," says Filgas, who expects those changes locally and nationally. "Dine-in has died," he says. "Whether or not it will recover remains to be seen."

Days before the shelter-in-place order in March, owner Nick Cole had already shifted the layout of Oberon Grill, pulling out tables and barstools to keep parties 4 to 6 feet apart ("Six Feet of Dining Separation," March 18). Prepping for the new dine-in regulations has meant some reshuffling of that initial plan, sticking with the masks employees have already been wearing for takeout and suiting up the dishwasher with the required non-permeable apron and gloves. "We have to look at anything coming off a plate as a biohazard," he says.

That's not the only shift in mindset reopening during a pandemic. "In the past in the restaurant industry, there was always this negotiation with the guest," Kohl says. Substitutions, off-menu orders — exceptions are often what make customers feel special. But when the house rules are about safety and the peace of mind of all the other patrons, "That's not what it is anymore. It's no longer a negotiation with the rules." Staff aren't taking guest temperatures or asking tablemates whether they're part of a single household, but the distance and hygiene rules are hard and fast. "We can't reduce risk to zero — nobody can in any situation. But within the parameters of what we know about this virus, we're doing the best we can."

Still, some staff weren't comfortable and opted not to come back, which he says he understands. Ultimately, Kohl doesn't see much difference in risk between now or next month. "So I wanted to try to bring our business back and see what it would be like in this environment." Takeout and curbside service will continue, but he says, "Our service is our presentation, come in, sit down, take time and be in another world."

Takeout also won't cover his mortgage by a long shot. The receipts from the restaurant's one Saturday night open were double the usual takeout haul, despite the Black Lives Matter/George Floyd protest that he says might have kept diners from getting to Old Town. (No hard feelings there, says Kohl, who supports the cause.) And he felt good connecting with his clientele again. Still, looking at how quickly things have changed in terms of the virus and the regulations to slow its spread, or if positive customer and staff feedback changes, he echoes Smith's sentiments on staying ready to adapt. Even if that means shuttering his dining room again.

"I used to plan six months out," says Kohl. "Now I just look at a week."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Bio:
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal.

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