Things have gone fairly smoothly since restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms two weeks ago, according to the Hamilton County Health Department, but it hasn't all been entirely easy.
"I've gotten about a dozen complaints on restaurants in the past couple of weeks," said Bonnie Deakins, the department's environmental health director.
Those complaints have ranged from people not observing social distancing guidelines to restaurant staff not wearing gloves or masks. She said when a complaint comes in, "An environmentalist goes out to the restaurant to investigate. If they find a problem, they educate the operator and ask them to make corrections. Everyone has cooperated so far. If someone were to just flat out refuse, I would take it to my Health Officer to decide upon the appropriate action."
Those actions could include temporarily closing the restaurant until the "imminent hazard no longer exists," which is the same process and authority the department had prior to the pandemic. Health Department officials have said since mid-March that restaurants have legal guidelines they must follow regarding the preparation and handling of food, and those remain in place.
What has changed is that the Centers for Disease Control, as well as state and local governments, have also added guidelines that restaurants are expected to follow since the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines, which are not laws, are not always followed and that has led to confusion, as customers and restaurant staff deal with the pandemic.
Restaurants across the country have struggled with ways to stay open, pay their bills and their employees. A recent survey by market research firm Packaged Facts found that food service revenues will be down 25% in 2020 over 2019 numbers. This is especially bad news for full-service restaurants, which have been steadily losing business to convenient fast food and fast causal restaurants in recent years, according to the survey.
Steve Flynn, co-owner of Stevarino's on Cherokee Boulevard and in South Pittsburg, said it is too early to tell what the overall impact of the reopening will be for this restaurants. He said his staff is daily learning how to deal with this new reality.
"Some people are getting out and it's the mentality that has changed," he said. "I've been in this business for 41 years and we had to figure out managing to-go orders and now spacing people out. Takeout is not just a simple matter of cooking it up. You have to package it, and serve it."
He said for the most part, people have been cooperative and seem happy to be out.
"We're not having any problems with the guidelines, though we had one incident where someone tried to get more than six at a table. I had to shut that down."
He said the biggest issue for his staff seems to be doing their jobs while wearing masks and gloves. He also said he is now opening his business seven days a week instead of six and has added brunch to his Saturday and Sunday offerings.
Health Department Hotline
To report an issue related to a restaurant, call the Health Department Hotline at 423-209-8383.
Shawn Whitfield said he has dined in at local restaurants about seven times in the last two weeks and that every place he has been "has been doing great following the guidelines, though I did go to one small place near my house and when I got there everything was fine as far as social distancing. And, then all of a sudden in got full and it was like business as usual."
Lisa Crowder said her family is not ready to go the dine-in route just yet for several reasons. A former food service worker herself for a dozen years, she doesn't see how the guidelines can be followed to the letter, especially since they seem to be either open to interpretation or changing daily.
"We are not doing any dining in," she said. "Takeout only and the reasons are two-fold really. First, the directions from the state and the county, the communication is all over the place.
"So, there is the unknown of that and secondly, I want to support businesses that are putting the safety of the customers and their employees first. Nobody knows how this thing will play out.
She said her family tries to pick restaurants that seem to be mainly local and tip as if eating in on a carry-out order. Even those restaurants aren't always following the guidelines properly.
"One poor girl had her mask down around her chin."
Crowder said once she gets her takeout order home, she removes the food from any packaging and puts it onto plates and in glasses.
The Flying Squirrel has reopened for takeout, pickup and Dinner Delivered this week with some "Squirrel classics and some new items on the menu," but co-owner Max Poppel said he was just not ready to "have people back in the building."
He said he and partner Dan Rose are approaching this as if they were opening a brand new restaurant, albeit this time with seven years of experience under their belts.
"When we opened the first one, we were making things up as we go," he said. "We've been looking at everything looking for better and smarter ways to do things."
Like Flynn, he said doing things like takeout and delivery are not as simple as flipping a switch. Everything from packaging to how to keep food hot have to be considered.
"We're excited to see what happens and ready to give it the old college try."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.