It almost felt normal on Franklin Street this weekend, the first since the shutdown that restaurants around the state were permitted to have some sit-down dining. On the sidewalks, pockets of people gathered at outdoor cafe tables.
But normal is relative. And the meaning of “hospitality” has also begun to change.
At Tandem Restaurant in Carrboro on Saturday night, one staff member was dedicated entirely to sanitizing surfaces. As Motown streamed through the speakers, servers dressed in black waltzed outside—only one diner ate inside—nudging the doors with their knees or hips and gracefully balancing blue and orange dutch ovens. Between the sound of diners clinking glasses, there was a subtly soapy ambiance, as staff made brisk trips to the sanitation stations placed around the restaurant.
Everyone had undergone new training. If this was not already evinced by staff caution, it could be discerned by the “Count On Me NC” certificate displayed prominently below the restaurant’s 100 sanitation score. Going forward, any restaurant complying with the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association’s sanitation campaign will display a sign like that.
The hospitality industry has always slightly resembled a ballet, and the new rhythm of dining appeared, on the second night of phase 2, to be a tense, tightly orchestrated affair.
Not that you could tell from the groups seated outside. The patio was buzzing. One couple celebrated an anniversary; others were on dates.
“It was like a Tuesday night on a Friday night,” says owner Emma Sabouh. “It’s definitely better than the alternative of being closed.”
Sabouh opened Tandem in 2016 with her partner, chef Younes Sabouh, after years of working together in kitchens. Opening then was a risk rooted in a love of restaurant culture. Reopening now has been another leap of faith.
“You have to reinvent yourself in times like this so you can keep moving,” she says. “You know, we have so many people that needed their jobs back. We wanted to help them, too, hopefully at least provide them with an income. I doubt there is any profit for us.”
In North Carolina, as in other states across the country, the reopening question is fraught, and COVID-19 is by no means in the rearview mirror: On Saturday, the Department of Health and Human Services reported the highest one-day jump in cases yet—1,107. But beyond acute epidemiological concerns, many restaurant owners say that operating at 50 percent capacity, as Governor Cooper’s executive order requires, is just not feasible.
At the end of April, forty top restaurateurs around North Carolina—including Cheetie Kumar, Gray Brooks, Andrea Reusing, and Scott Crawford—signed an open letter to Cooper stating that a partial opening would harm independent restaurants. Reopening this way, the letter stated, would reduce demand for the takeout services that many restaurants are relying on to make payroll, if not a profit. Many of the restaurateurs have intimate dining rooms where six-feet distances are impractical or impossible.
Brendan Cox, the chef-owner of Oakleaf in Carrboro, says that weighing the restaurant’s survival alongside public and employee health has been agonizing. Increased testing and contact tracing would make him consider opening, he says, but he questions whether the public appetite for dining out will ever be the same.
“We knew that we would not be the first restaurant to reopen,” Cox says, “And we don’t believe that we will be the last one. My wife and I are having long and often circular conversations about what is morally and ethically right about reopening the restaurant. And I don’t think we’ve settled on an answer.”
Across the country, more than 30 states have already reopened restaurants for dine-in service, or are in the process of rolling back restrictions. In North Carolina, those restrictions vary by county. In Durham, Mayor Steve Schewel has extended the stay-at-home order until June 1. In Orange County, a softer reopening is at play: in contrast to the state’s cap of 10 people per restaurant table, the county is limiting tabletops to six (save for households).
When it comes to the fine-print choices—outdoor-versus-indoor seating, open-versus-closed windows, servers-wearing-gloves-versus-not-wearing-gloves—restaurants are largely left to make their own calls.
At Small B&B Cafe—a family restaurant located in a folksy Pittsboro farmhouse—ample outdoor space has given owners Lisa Piper and Dave Clark hope that they can safely serve guests without relying on indoor seating. While they have a small indoor dining area, they’re planning to reserve it for people with special needs and direct able-bodied guests to seats outside—until the weather turns, that is.
“If it rains, it’ll hose us,” Piper said cheerfully over the phone on Friday. Beside her, Clark was cooking the cafe’s first reopening dinner. “We’ll have to see how it goes once temperatures here reach 100 degrees,” she said. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but we’re fully expecting that there’s going to be a second wave that’s going to turn around and box us. So, you know, who knows?”
At Il Palio, a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant in Chapel Hill, an open floor plan has made spaced-out dining more feasible. Still, manager Annabel Butler says the restaurant is taking few chances. All tables are spaced 8 or 10 feet apart, and servers are wearing gloves in addition to masks. Hospitality no longer looks like giving diners whatever they want.
“As hospitality professionals, we really love saying yes to everything with the customer,” she says. “But we’re trying to transition our mindset into being more ‘no’ people, because it’s keeping the safety of our employees and our guests. It’s a hard mindset. Now we’re having to be like, no, we have to keep our distance.”
Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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