Utah restaurants and bars may be able to restart sit-down dining — with restrictions — but don’t expect every café, burger joint or taqueria to suddenly throw open the doors and welcome customers Friday.
Let’s put it in food terms: Reopening will not be a quick sear. It will be a low and slow simmer that will take weeks or possibly months to roll out.
Gov. Gary Herbert and state and local health officials said that Utah was ready to move from its current red or “high risk” COVID-19 level to orange or “moderate risk." That shift allows restaurants, bars, gyms, salons and entertainment sites to reopen “with extreme precaution.”
To open safely, restaurants must remove or block off tables so diners are sitting 6 feet apart. Employees will wear masks and gloves, and restaurant owners or managers will be taking temperatures of staffers to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
Takeout and delivery are still recommended, especially for those in high-risk categories.
Julio Gonzalez plans to reopen Asado Argentinian Grill and Cafe in Orem on Friday. He and his employees have cleaned and disinfected the restaurant, removed almost a dozen tables and created seating options on the patio.
He’s trained his staffers about proper service, the need for “elbow bumps,” instead of the usual hugs, and even added new items to the menu.
While the restaurant has offered takeout during April, the inside seating area “has been empty for 40 days,” he said. "That’s hard to see.”
Gonzalez has found a silver lining in the transition.
"One thing we’ve learned through all this: We know our service has to be better,” he said. “We need to slow down and pay attention to detail.”
He is ready to open and believes the community is ready to back him.
“There is always going to be a flu or virus out there,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for the community to realize that we need to take care of each other. If we all wash our hands, wear masks and distance ourselves — life can get back to some normality.”
Not every restaurant owner feels the same way. Some say it’s not financially feasible to open with limited seating and staff. Others will continue to offer takeout and delivery for a few more weeks until the dust in the orange level settles.
The restrictions “totally make sense,” said Tony Valdez, co-owner of Real Taqueria, a quick-serve restaurant in Holladay. But the penalties can be pretty harsh if not followed correctly, so the eatery will continue to offer drive-thru and takeout.
“We’ll probably give it a week or two to see how things are going,” he said, “We are a small, family-owned business, so we’ll wait to see what the bigger guys are doing.”
Even larger restaurant groups, like Hires Big H and Litzas Pizza “are still evaluating how to best be in compliance,” spokesperson Alexandra Foster said. "Because of this, we will not be open for dine-in on May 1, but we hope to soon.”
Other restaurateurs say it’s too early to know if the coronavirus has really peaked, or if the state is in for a second wave. They worry about their workers and customers.
Dean Pierose, owner of Salt Lake City’s Cucina Wine Bar, is in that camp. Opening now, he said, when the number of active coronavirus cases continues to climb is “reckless” and “careless."
“We’re not opening in May,” he said, though he hopes to do so safely come June.
“We’ll open when we don’t have to wear masks and gloves and when the tables aren’t apart from each other,” he said, “until we can create a situation that is comfortable to dine and safe for everyone.”
Here are the new restaurant rules:
• Six feet between tables. Restaurants must remove tables or mark some off not to be used.
• Limit tables to groups of 10, preferably members of the same household.
• In waiting areas, a 6-foot distance must be maintained between parties, whether indoors or out.
• Hand sanitizer must be available at the door.
• When possible, no contact credit card payments will take place.
• Face coverings (masks, scarfs, gaiters, bandanas) are to be worn in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
• Playgrounds in restaurants remain closed.
• Employees must be checked for symptoms and have their temperatures taken before every shift.
• Staffers must wear face coverings and wash their hands between interactions.
• Staggered workstations must be in force so employees are not facing one another and are 6 feet apart.
• Staffers must use gloves when handling ready-to-eat foods (including ice).
• They must sanitize hands between handling payment options and food/containers.