Community Safety is Most Important as Restaurants Reopen

. June 17, 2020.
Street closures to open outdoor eating for residents on W. Washington. Image courtesy of David Wak.

When COVID-19 abruptly shut down Michigan last March, it also shut down our lives in numerous other ways. One of the many signs of normalcy we’ve lost since then is the simple joy of eating at our favorite restaurants. Thankfully, many places still offered take-out, but it just wasn’t the same. Now that Michigan’s stay in place order has been lifted, we can venture out to our favorite restaurant, albeit on a more limited basis.

Since June 8, restaurants in Michigan were allowed to reopen for indoor and outdoor dining, but only at 50% capacity with tables spaced 6 feet apart. Customers must also wear masks while being seated and have to wait in the vehicles until their table becomes available.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has taken a huge toll on area restaurants. Long established eateries like Logans have shut their doors for good. Others, like Delores Taco in Ypsilanti, are waiting to see how things pan out first. Owner Andrew Epstein said he is wary of a second wave but plans to reopen in October, not as much as a restaurant but still offering food and drink.

Many others won’t wait that long. Although their approaches to reopening are different, every restaurant has the safety of their staff and customers in mind.

People enjoy eating outside on Main Street. Image courtesy of David Wak.

GOING TO THE ROADHOUSE

One of the restaurants that’s reopening full bore is, unsurprisingly, Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Marketing Manager Marcy Harris said her staff are going forth with a mix of nervousness and excitement. Like many other restaurants, they offered take-out and delivery during the shutdown but now hope people will show up despite the health risks.

‘We certainly hope so, and have planned accordingly. We do understand that some of our diners may not be ready to come back to the dining room yet…’

Harris said she and her staff want to make the experience as comfortable as possible. However, with social distancing guidelines in place, there are changes and adjustments for everyone. Zingerman’s Roadhouse has closed both the bar and the dining counter. But Harris said they are able to seat groups of up to ten people while keeping tables six feet apart. They have also added safety minded amenities, like handheld devices for customers to run their credit cards through.

With less seating capacity available, restaurant owners are understandably worried about both their bottom lines and the health and safety of their employees. Harris said it’s a challenge but they are it taking head on. Firstly, her employees must follow stringent sanitation guidelines including wearing masks at all times. Both employees and customers must also pass a forehead temperature scan or they cannot enter the restaurant. Additionally, their employees are doing additional training to limit contact with customer’s utensils and generally trying to make employees shifts as contactless as possible.

To address the loss of capacity and profits, Harris said they are reducing both restaurant and employee hours. They hope that as business increases, so will those hours. She also said there will be a lot of adaptation by customers and staff hopes that these requirements won’t keep people away.

But what about the ugly scenario of a customer that won’t comply with safety guidelines? For Harris, the answer is simple: they will be asked to leave.

“We hope it does not have to reach this point but we have to think of the well-being of our community,” she said.

Picnic tables set up in front of Zingerman’s Roadhouse on Jackson and Maple. Image courtesy of David Wak.

A SLOWER APPROACH

For Miss Kim Korean Restaurant in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown, the approach is slightly slower. Chef and Managing Partner Ji Hye Kim said they have delivered and offered pickup since the pandemic but are now offering outside dining at their picnic tables. 

Kim said after many conversations with the staff, they decided it was best to open up slowly and only offer outside dining for now. But there are plans to include inside dining in a couple of weeks. To ensure safety, they are installing clear plexiglass at their order counter and tables will be spaced 6 feet apart. There will also be signs with clear guidelines and directions for their customers. They even offer a kind service for the forgetful.

“If you forgot your mask, we will have a single use mask for you,” Kim said.

When the state was shut down in March, Miss Kim lost half its customers and staff. Since reopening Kim worries that decreased seating will affect their bottom line but has also adopted strategies to offset that. Namely, they will have a smaller menu featuring Miss Kim favorites, along with a seasonal menu. With the meat supply in flux since March, Kim said they are focusing more on vegetarian dishes, which was a direction they were headed in anyway.

As restaurants reopen Kim says he and his staff are cautiously optimistic. He said the COVID-19 numbers are way down in Michigan and Washtenaw Country, and that his staff is on board with a slower reopening because they feel well taken care of and safe. This is a feeling he wants to share with his customers too. He said they may take a financial hit at first but taking a slower approach will pay off in the long run.

“…I think ultimately the safe way to do business is also the most financially sound,” Kim said.

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