ATLANTA (AP) — With tables wide apart and staff wearing masks, some Georgia restaurants reopened for limited dine-in service Monday as the state loosened more coronavirus restrictions, but many eateries remained closed amid concerns that serving in-house meals could put staff and customers at risk.
The dine-in service and movie screenings resumed after other businesses, including barbershops, gyms, tattoo shops and nail salons, were allowed to start seeing customers Friday. While many gratefully opened their doors after a monthlong closure, others did not feel ready yet and stayed closed. A similar mixed response played out Monday.
Gov. Brian Kemp announced last week that he would relax restrictions despite health experts’ warnings of a potential surge in infections and disapproval from President Donald Trump.
Kemp issued 39 requirements that restaurants must follow if they reopen, including observing a limit of 10 customers per 500 square feet (about 46 square meters) and ensuring that all employees wear face coverings all the time. Movie theater ushers were ordered to enforce social distancing.
At Plucked Up Chicken & Biscuits in Columbus, eight regulars showed up Monday morning to have coffee and breakfast and “chatted at each other across the room,” manager Alesha Webster said.
The restaurant followed the governor’s restrictions, including constantly disinfecting and sanitizing, placing tables 6 feet (2 meters) apart and practicing social distancing, Webster said. The restrictions also mean only 10 customers can be inside at a time, rather than the normal capacity of 45.
The outbreak has been brutal on such a small business, even though the restaurant offered to-go orders, Webster said. The decision to reopen for dine-in service was difficult, she said.
“You don’t want people to bash you because you’re just trying to make ends meet,” she said.
Georgia-based Waffle House planned to resume limited dine-in service at many of its 400 restaurants across the state. Waffle House spokeswoman Njeri Boss said that 330 of the chain’s Georgia restaurants stayed open for takeout orders during the lockdown, and most of them were expected to start serving dine-in customers Monday.
The popular chain is known for being one of the last to close and first to reopen during the hurricanes and floods that affect the region.
Alex Brounstein, the owner of Atlanta-based burger chain, Grindhouse Killer Burgers, said he had no plans to reopen Monday and he questioned how any restaurant can resume dine-in service while maintaining social distance or other precautions to prevent the virus from spreading.
“You’re talking about people putting their mouths on things in your restaurant. You now have dirty dishes going back into your kitchen. To me, it’s just completely illogical,” he said.
Mary Mac’s Tea Room, an Atlanta institution that opened in 1945 and serves up Southern specialties, also planned to remain closed for now. While they respect the governor’s decision, they don’t believe it’s in the best interests or safety of their staff or customers to reopen yet, a message on the restaurant’s Facebook page said.
“We miss seeing all of your smiling faces and catching up over crispy fried chicken, mac and cheese, and collard greens! We look forward to sharing these times again soon, but only when it is safe to do so,” the message said.
The restaurant thanked the community for messages of support and shared a recipe for its Augusta Lemonade, a lemon and orange juice drink punched up with peach tea vodka: “Even though we can’t all be together, let’s have a drink!”
The shutdown imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus has caused tremendous damage to the economy, and the governor said it was time to start letting people get back to work. The Georgia Department of Labor announced Thursday that 1.1 million workers — about one-fifth of the state’s workforce — filed for unemployment in the five weeks since the crisis started.
But public health experts have said a spike in new cases could follow if reopening happens too quickly; increased testing and diligent tracking of infected people’s contacts are needed to counter that. Georgia has ranked in the bottom 10 of states for testing per capita, but some progress was made on that front last week.
Trump, who has also stressed the need to get the economy chugging again, said last week that Kemp’s plan was too much too fast. The president specifically said spas, beauty salons, tattoo parlors and barber shops should not reopen immediately.
Kemp and other state leaders, including Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston, planned to gather Monday morning with faith leaders from across the state to hold a prayer service in the rotunda of the state Capitol.
For most people, the coronavirus behind the pandemic causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause severe illness such as pneumonia, or even death.
Associated Press Writer Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta contributed to this report.