Reopening weekend largely positive for restaurants
Customers, often unmasked, were happy to be out
Reopening weekend was largely positive for restaurants and other businesses in Virginia localities that entered Phase One of Gov. Northam’s Forward Virginia plan on Friday.
“It was actually very busy,” said Brad Smith, general manager of Quaker Steak & Lube on Bristol’s State Street. “We were busy to the capacity we could be.”
Smith had seen firsthand the difference earlier this spring when Tennessee’s governor allowed restaurants to reopen literally across the street from his own restaurant on the Virginia side. To keep people from crowding, Smith’s staff texted patrons as tables became available.
Quaker Steak & Lube, as required by Northam’s Phase One regulations, opened its outdoor patio and kept tables more than six feet apart. Staff members wore masks, but Smith noted, “I did not see a guest wear a mask the entire weekend.”
“I felt like guests were overwhelmingly patient,” he said. “People were generally happy to get out and eat at a restaurant.”
It was similar in downtown Fredericksburg at Foode and Mercantile, sister restaurants that have stayed afloat by offering curbside delivery, take-home dinner packages and even selling groceries. Operations for both restaurants are now combined in Foode’s kitchen.
Reopening their patio this weekend “was good,” said co-owner Joy Crump, the restaurant’s executive chef. “It’s hard to assess it. We’re more careful in a million ways, so that slows things down. We’re doing it in the vacuum of what we can accomplish now.”
Like Smith, Crump said that guests seemed happy to be out and about. Many of her patrons wore masks when not eating and drinking. Because the restaurants still offer pickup and delivery, Crump said, patrons who did join them on the patio were happy to be there.
“You’re not getting people sitting at a table that aren’t ready to sit at a table,” she said. “They wanted to see how we were doing.”
In Virginia Beach, Rudee’s Restaurant & Cabana Bar was bustling, said Carter Turpin, the restaurant’s owner. Rudee’s was “very busy all three days of the weekend. We open at 11 each day. Customers were waiting at 10:45 a.m. Friday to get on the deck.”
Turpin too said some customers wore masks and were “very friendly and patient. Most everything went smoothly,” although staff had to learn new table sections.
Business at Rudee’s and other Virginia Beach restaurants is likely to increase further as beaches reopen Friday for recreational use, although restaurants will still be required to keep dining rooms closed until localities enter Phase Two, expected to begin in two or three weeks.
Reopening meant more work for restaurant employees, and Turpin said all of his staff was back. Smith is hiring in Bristol, and Crump, who has been able to gradually add shifts since her dining rooms were shut down, said about three-fourths of her former staff are back at work.
It was considerably slower at Roanoke’s Historic City Market on Saturday than it usually would be on a pleasant spring day, said Jaime Clark, marketing and communications manager for Downtown Roanoke Inc., which runs the farmer’s market. “Crowds were decent but by no means close to what they normally be,” she said. “Only four vendors showed up,” down from about 30 to 35 on a typical Saturday.
Part of the reason was a restriction on vendors who sell things other than food, soap or other hygiene products, Clark noted, which kept artists and crafters away. “I think a lot of people are thinking ‘wait and see what happens,'” she said. “Hopefully once people get the message that the farmer’s market is open and we’re following safety protocols, we hope people will come out safely.”
Clark and her family left town to go camping in Floyd County, another opportunity that was unavailable to Virginians until this weekend. There were not a ton of people at the campground, she said, and campers were “pretty spread out.”
Accomack County, the city of Richmond and five Northern Virginia localities chose to delay Phase One until May 29; local officials requested a postponement from Northam last week. The five counties and two cities still have higher-than-average rates of COVID-19, and officials there said they weren’t ready to reopen “nonessential” businesses, restaurants and personal care businesses such as massage therapy parlors, barber shops and nail salons.
However, businesspeople and elected officials in other parts of the state — especially those that have not seen many coronavirus cases, such as in Southwest Virginia — have been urging the governor to reopen their areas since mid-April, emphasizing the loss of jobs and income in their localities.
Now that the first weekend is over, Smith said it’s probably going to be more like business as usual. Bristol closed State Street to allow pedestrians more room Saturday, but vehicle traffic returned Sunday, as did a smaller crowd of patrons, he said. Also, there’s rain in the forecast, which will keep a lot of people away.
Crump and her business partner, Beth Black, have had to make hard decisions, including the temporary closure of Mercantile and cutting staff members’ hours, but Crump says the past weekend may represent a turning point for her restaurants. “I think we’re only going forward,” she said. “I think Virginia is doing an excellent job toeing the line between its economy and being cautious.”