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Ohio reopens restaurants, bars

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It’s mid-May. A chilly spring is giving way to warmer weather. And on Friday, restaurants across the state will be opening for dining service — outside.

Last Thursday, Ohio restaurants and bars got the go-ahead from Gov. Mike DeWine to resume outdoor dining on Friday, May 15. Indoor dining is permitted to restart the following week, on Thursday, May 21.

Restaurants and bars are among the Ohio businesses that have been closed longest, with dine-in service suspended on March 15 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. About half of restaurants statewide have closed entirely during this time, while others have stayed open for carry-out and delivery, according to the Ohio Restaurant Association.

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As restaurants reopen, they must follow new state guidelines regarding social distancing, sanitation, facial coverings for workers and other practices. These guidelines were developed by a restaurant advisory group convened by the state and announced last Thursday with the reopen dates.

While restaurants are cleared for reopening, few local establishments are jumping to do so.

Mary Kay Smith, owner of the Winds Cafe, is working to reconfigure her patio for socially distanced dining. She won’t be reopening on Friday. And she has no firm date set for the reopening of the Winds’ dining room, but when she does, she initially will require reservations of all guests.

“We’re going to be very cautious. I don’t want to close down again,” she said.

Smith added that the Winds plans to keep its existing carry-out service “ramped up” through the summer, partly to provide an option for people who aren’t yet comfortable dining indoors.

Another local restaurateur, Brian Rainey, who owns Sunrise Cafe and Calypso Grill and Smokehouse, is waiting an additional week or two beyond the state’s reopen date before offering patio service. Indoor dining will likely be even further down the road.

Before COVID-19 hit, Rainey had been working on getting a patio at Calypso up and running. Those plans continue. And he hopes to work with the Village to expand outdoor seating at Sunrise Cafe to the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, as well as opening his existing patio out back.

For now, Sunrise and Calypso are continuing with carry-out and delivery service, as both restaurants have done since April.

New guidelines

Restaurants and bars are reopening under new state guidelines designed to contain the spread of COVID-19. Cases continue to mount in Ohio, with the total case count topping 25,000 on Tuesday. While the steep increases from earlier in the pandemic have moderated, the state continues to report an average of 550 new cases each day.

A major feature of the new restaurant rules is social distancing, achieved through at least six feet of separation or physical barriers between workers, as well as between parties of customers. Under the guidelines, restaurants are responsible for enforcing social distancing within their establishments, with the new rules stating that businesses “must take affirmative steps with customers to achieve safe social distancing guidelines.” DeWine has previously indicated that businesses can call in local health department officials for help enforcing the new rules.

Other new guidelines include the requirement that most workers wear facial coverings, increased frequency of surface cleaning and a maximum size of 10 for parties of customers. Facial coverings are not required for customers, but are considered a “best practice” that individual businesses can choose to mandate.

Locally, Smith said she wasn’t yet sure if the Winds would require customers to wear face masks, pointing to the complexities of such coverings in a dining setting.

“It’s a tricky situation. The touching of your mask is problematic,” she said, describing how customers would likely need to put on their face masks and take them off at various points during the meal.

While the guidelines don’t specifically set a lowered maximum capacity for restaurants and bars, one practical effect of social distancing requirements is a substantial decrease in the number of customers an establishment can serve at one time.

Dan Young, owner of Young’s Dairy, served on the state’s restaurant advisory group, one of 36 restaurateurs around the state tapped to do so. He said that the group didn’t want to dictate a capacity level, giving owners the flexibility to configure their own space. But most restaurants and bars will probably end up with about 50% diminished capacity under the new rules, according to Young.

He praised the effort of the advisory group in coming up with guidelines that business owners would accept and customers would — members of the group hope — feel reassured by. Asked whether he believed that restaurants were safe for customers under the new guidelines, he replied in the affirmative.

“Obviously everyone has to make their own decision. But restaurants are more sanitary than they ever have been. I believe we have a good recipe of things to do and we are diligently following the rules and doing our best to keep our staff as well as guests safe,” he said.

Young added that facial coverings weren’t a topic of contention among advisory group members, as they have been among some citizens and lawmakers in the state. He said they make “logical sense” for reducing the spread of the virus. But, echoing Smith, he acknowledged that such coverings were difficult to envision at times for customers.

“But you can’t lick an ice cream cone with a face mask on,” he said.

To expand seating capacity beyond what’s allowable under the new guidelines, some local restaurant owners are hoping to work with the Village to create more outdoor dining spaces. According to Greene Canteen owner Brittany Baum this week, one idea being floated is closing off Corry Street between Xenia Avenue and Dayton Street to allow for a pedestrian area where tables and chairs could be located.

Baum said she raised the possibility with local merchants after reading about a plan by the city of Cincinnati to close smaller downtown streets and lanes near restaurants to expand outdoor seating.

“It would be really cool if we could come up with a situation where all the restaurants in the area used that space,” she said.

But Village Manager Josué Salmerón said in an email that the closure of the 100 block on Corry Street wasn’t feasible, as the street is used by the postal service, police and EMS. However, Salmerón emphasized that the Village planned to work with local restaurants to expand outdoor seating.

“Currently, patio sitting is regulated as a conditional use. We are prepared to discuss with Council the need for an ordinance that would provide a blanket approval — on a temporary basis — for outdoor sitting areas.” he wrote.

Majority of sectors restarted

Restaurants and bars aren’t the only businesses restarting this week. Also part of last week’s announcement was the reopening of personal care services, including hair salons, barbershops, nail salons, tanning salons and day spas. These services can open their doors on May 15, as can massage therapy, acupuncture and tattoo/piercing businesses, whose reopening with proper safety protocols was announced this Tuesday.

As they reopen, personal care services must follow state guidelines developed by a personal care services advisory group. These guidelines revolve around social distancing, facial coverings for workers, gloves or hand washing per CDC guidelines and hourly cleaning of high-contact areas. In these businesses, an exception to social distancing is allowed in the interaction between the worker and client.

Earlier in the week, retail shops opened their doors, following earlier waves of restarts for manufacturing, distribution, construction and general office environments. The vast majority of the Ohio economy is now up and running — at least officially. Though an estimated 92% of businesses have been given the green light to restart, business owners around the state are making individual decisions about when they are comfortable doing so. (See page 2 of this issue for reopen dates of various Yellow Springs businesses.)

And certain sectors have not yet been cleared for reopening. Venues such as gyms, recreation centers, pools and movie theaters remain closed, as do adult day programs and senior centers.

Perhaps of greatest consequence to working parents, child care centers also remain closed even as workplaces around the state have reopened. While an announcement was expected on Monday regarding child care centers, DeWine said a plan for their safe reopening was still in the works.

“It’s very, very important that we get this right, and we don’t want to announce the date until we have the protocols in place,” he said.

Parents who choose to stay home with their children in the interim are not in danger of losing unemployment benefits, according to Kimberly Hall, director of Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, who spoke by video link on Monday in response to a question from a reporter.

“No benefits are being denied right now as a result of a person’s decision not to return to work as we continue to evaluate the policy,” Hall said.

Megan Bachman contributed reporting to this story.

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