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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Wilson Kessel walks out of Mad Priest's Broad Street location after getting coffee on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

This story was updated at 11:09 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, to clarify that the mask mandate remains in Hamilton County while restrictions have been lifted across Tennessee.

While the lifting of coronavirus restrictions for restaurants by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and subsequently Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is good news for some, it's made things even more confusing for others.

Mad Priest owner Michael Rice said there's a mixed message in telling people the restrictions have been lifted across the state, though the Hamilton County mask mandate remains in place until Oct. 8.

And there is the fact that private businesses like his can still require patrons and staff to wear masks, whether the state or county requires them.

"Just 10 minutes ago, my employee at Broad Street said a customer came in without a mask and when she asked him to put one on, he began yelling that he didn't have one and the governor said he didn't have to," Rice said.

After the employee reminded him it was a private business and he'd have to wear a mask, the customer cussed her and walked out. Rice said canceling the restrictions this week has only caused confusion.

"This is ridiculous with all of the ambiguity and no clarity. It reminds me of March all over again when everyone was so confused," he said.

"Why put us in a position to where we might lose more business when we are already struggling? It'd be nice if our leaders could actually lead and share the information that people need."

Rice, who also owns a drive-through location on Wilcox Boulevard, said canceling the restrictions doesn't mean the threat of getting sick is over.

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Confusion for Chattanooga restaurants

"I don't think people take demographics into some of their thinking," he said. "Eighty percent of my customers here are African-American, and COVID impacts them more, and they think it's a big deal. Some people don't think about the business or other people."

He said that the majority of his customers at the Broad Street location want to wear masks, "and it's a private location and customers need to respect their wishes and it'd be nice if Coppinger or [Chattanooga Mayor Andy] Berke would clarify that when they make announcements like this."

Olive Branch owner Callie Meta said the news won't change much on how she conducts her business, but she is hopeful that the lifting of the restrictions will lead people to feel safe enough to return to dining in at her East Ridge restaurant.

"We're pretty much status quo," she said.

"We use plastic instead of silverware, and the only thing we are not doing is self-serve things like tea and stuff like that. We still sanitize everything, but we've already done that. And, my staff all wear masks at all times when there is a customer in the house."

She added that the tables in the dining area are spread apart. Most of her customers of late prefer take-out.

"It's just that people are afraid right now, and I am hoping that lifting the restrictions will be good and that people will trust the owners and come back in to eat. We want to be safe, too. We don't want to get sick."

Greg Beairsto is the co-owner of Crust Pizza on Signal Mountain Boulevard and Sofa King Juicy Burger a block away on Dayton Boulevard. The pizza restaurant has been take-out and delivery and will remain so for the time being, he said, adding, "I'm not ready to pull the trigger on [re-opening] Sofa King yet."

He said he "has no idea" what the lifting of the restrictions this week will mean.

"To me, this doesn't change a thing," he said. "We have approached this thing from the ultimate safety point of view. Dealing with food and a virus is a very serious thing and my staff, my millennial and post-millennial staff, has taken this very seriously. In fact, when I ask them if we should reopen the dining room, they are very adamant that now is not the time."

He added that part of that is because of the differing messages and attitudes of customers.

"It is very confusing, and people will act how they want to act, and we just want everybody to be safe."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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