By JASON DUNOVANT
Several local businesses have once again opened their doors as Virginia has begun easing some of the restrictions put in place due to COVID-19. Customers began flocking to restaurants over the weekend for a chance to finally dine out after enduring weeks where the only option was takeout.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed Executive Order 61 on May 9 to begin the first phase of businesses reopening to the public. The order allowed restaurants, microbreweries, distilleries, wineries and tasting rooms to offer outdoor dining in addition to take-out services as long as they followed certain guidelines.
Bridgewater Plaza was packed May 15 for the first day of eased restrictions. Customers filled the outdoor seating at each of the restaurants where it was available. Restaurant staff spent the previous week working to comply with the new guidelines.
At Mango’s Bar and Grill, about 30% of the outside seating was removed to assure that dining parties were positioned six feet apart from other tables. Condiments for each of the tables were also removed to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19 between customers.
Despite the changes, the outdoor dining patio at Mango’s Bar and Grill looked much like is has in previous years on a Friday night in May. The biggest difference were the masks required for waitstaff.
Jason Hodnett, Mango’s general manager, said allowing outside dining is a major boost to a business that has been limited to take out only for several weeks. Even so, he said business is still only half of what it normally is this time of year with inside seating still not allowed and the limit on outside seating.
“The sooner we can get to phase two, the better,” Hodnett said.
Bryan Hochstein, Rocky Mount Burger Company owner, said he, too, is “anxiously” awaiting phase two because he will be announcing some special events when they can accommodate more people.
Hochstein said he wasn’t fan of having to use disposable menus and throwing away cups after one round of drinks, because one regulation prohibits refilling cups, but overall he was “glad to be open.”
The Franklin Street restaurant added picnic tables to its parking lot ito accommodate those who wanted to “dine in.” He said while some patrons were sticking with carryout, others were “chomping at the bit to get out.” Business picked up enough for the burger joint to even add an extra staff member during the weekend shifts.
In Boones Mill, Franklin County Distilleries reopened its patio, which includes a fire pit and socially distanced tables. The distillery had just opened as a “Bar and Grill” as it began serving food in late December. The grill had barely been open two months before having to close due to the pandemic.
“It was a beautiful weekend to be open again,” said FCD manager Larry Lobmeyer. “Business did well this weekend and it was great to see some familiar faces returning. We didn’t do as well as I expected but we had our best weekend in two months.”
During the down time, FCD has been creating new cocktails and added new flavored vodkas to the menu. Lobmeyer said the distillery is offering a new cocktail sampler.
“We now have 24 flavored vodkas plus our Jolly Shots and regular spirits,” Lobmeyer said. “Being our cocktail menu is getting large and has many unique mixtures we have decided on adding a cocktail sampler, which will be similar to a flight but larger portions of choice cocktails so you can try a bunch of drinks to help you decide on a favorite.”
At The Copper Kettle Co. at Lakewatch, outside dining was expanded around the building to allow for more customers. General manager Mickey Martin said he spent much of last week working to obtain the proper permits to expand seating. He also worked with staff to make sure everyone, including the staff themselves, were safe.
Starting May 15, patrons at the restaurant were given disposable menus to prevent any possible spread of COVID-19. Also, similar to Mango’s, tables were spread 10 feet apart and all wait staff was required to wear masks.
Martin said the dine in option will provide a major boost to the restaurant that has been only offering take out. “It will at least triple what we were doing,” he said.
Nancy Bell, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Health’s West Piedmont Health District, gave a virtual presentation for area businesses on May 13 in anticipation of the start of phase one. She said that current plans are for phase one to end June 10.
She said Gov. Northam could possibly move on to phase two on June 10 or possibly return to phase one if the number of COVID-19 cases greatly increase. Despite the current ease on restrictions, Bell warned that the virus is likely to stay for the foreseeable future.
“I think, until we have a vaccine, we are going to deal with this illness,” Bell said.
Franklin News-Post Editor Briana Barker contributed to this story.