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Georgia restaurants allowed to reopen as restrictions loosen

Kate Brumback and Russ Bynum
Associated Press

Atlanta – 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 employees and customers at risk.

The dine-in service and movie screenings were allowed to resume a few days after some other businesses, including barbershops, gyms, tattoo shops and nail salons, began seeing customers. While many of those establishments gratefully opened their doors Friday after a monthlong closure, others did not feel ready. A similar mixed response played out Monday.

Mary Spoto, general manager of Madison Chop House Grille, places a sign outside the restaurant as she and her staff prepare to shift from take out only to dine-in service Monday, April 27, 2020, in Madison, Ga.

“We’re ecstatic to have them back,” said Chris Heithaus, who manages 87 Waffle House restaurants in coastal areas of Georgia and the Carolinas. “A lot of people, I think, want to get back to the new normal, which will be social distancing and all that. But they will be able to eat inside the restaurant.”

The “new normal” at the popular chain known for hash brown breakfasts and its ability to stay open even in the face of natural disasters, included employees wearing masks, booths closed to keep customers apart and traditional plastic place mat menus replaced by disposable paper menus.

Waffle House spokeswoman Njeri Boss said 330 of the chain’s 400 Georgia restaurants stayed open for takeout orders during the lockdown, and most of them were expected to start serving dine-in customers 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.

Madison Chop House Grille employee Cheryl Viglione unstacks chairs as she works to shift from take out only to dine-in service Monday, April 27, 2020, in Madison, Ga. Gov. Brian Kemp has eased restrictions on restaurants as long as precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are followed.

“You don’t want people to bash you because you’re just trying to make ends meet,” she said.

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 managers 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.

Even those who ventured out were doing so with caution. At the Savannah Waffle House, regular customer Corey Brooks ordered a waffle and pork chops and noted how quiet the normally bustling restaurant is. He’s still working from home, and he still thinks it’s too soon to return to the office or get a haircut.

“This would be the only restaurant I would come and sit in,” Brooks said. “I know the people here.”

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.

The shutdown imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus has caused tremendous damage to the economy. About a fifth of the state’s workforce – 1.1 million workers – filed for unemployment in the five weeks since the crisis started, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.

But public health experts say increased testing and diligent tracking of infected people’s contacts are needed to guard against a spike in new cases if reopening happens too quickly. Georgia has ranked in the bottom 10 of states for testing per capita, but some progress was made on that front last week.

State and local health officials in Georgia are also teaming up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do antibody testing to get an idea of how many people have already been infected with the virus. Public health workers plan to visit randomly selected homes in two Atlanta counties from April 28 to May 4 to ask residents to answer questions and provide a blood sample, according to a news release from the state Department of Public Health.

Antibody tests cannot determine if a person has an active case of COVID-19, but they can identify people who were infected but did not have symptoms or were not tested.

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Associated Press Writer Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta contributed to this report.