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Restaurateurs ready to usher customers back inside, with new rules

The Columbus Dispatch logo The Columbus Dispatch 5/20/2020 Lucas Sullivan
a dining room table in front of a window: Mezzo general manager Michael Haller cleans Wednesday in preparation for the Dublin restaurant’s reopening to dine-in customers Thursday. Restaurant owners said they’re doing all they can to ensure safety and are asking customers to be patient as everyone gets used to changes in the dining experience. [Fred Squillante/Dispatch] © Provided by The Columbus Dispatch Mezzo general manager Michael Haller cleans Wednesday in preparation for the Dublin restaurant’s reopening to dine-in customers Thursday. Restaurant owners said they’re doing all they can to ensure safety and are asking customers to be patient as everyone gets used to changes in the dining experience. [Fred Squillante/Dispatch]

Restaurants from White Castle to Molly Woo's will welcome back dine-in customers across Ohio on Thursday with smiles hidden behind face masks as Ohio's restaurant industry tries to regain its footing.

a person standing in a room: Taste Hospitality Group assistant general manager Patrick Winchester helps clean Mezzo on Wednesday in preparation for the Dublin restaurant’s reopening to dine-in customers Thursday. [Fred Squillante/Dispatch] © Provided by The Columbus Dispatch Taste Hospitality Group assistant general manager Patrick Winchester helps clean Mezzo on Wednesday in preparation for the Dublin restaurant’s reopening to dine-in customers Thursday. [Fred Squillante/Dispatch]

For their part, customers will have to look for signs. Lots of signs.

Restaurant owners said that in order for their reopening to be successful customers will have to pay attention to signage, have patience and maintain social distancing.

Many restaurants reopened their patios a week ago to get a feel for how they can best serve customers under guidelines recommended by Gov. Mike DeWine, which include reduced capacity, social distancing, mask wearing and reduced contact with patrons.

a man sitting at a table in front of a building: Mezzo general manager Michael Haller cleans a patio table Wednesday at the Dublin restaurant. Dine-in service resumes Thursday. [Fred Squillante/Dispatch] © Provided by The Columbus Dispatch Mezzo general manager Michael Haller cleans a patio table Wednesday at the Dublin restaurant. Dine-in service resumes Thursday. [Fred Squillante/Dispatch]

Guests also could be asked to wear masks.

Restaurant owners have been holding virtual meetings organized by the Ohio Restaurant Association for several weeks to help one another prepare to reopen.

In addition, restaurant association members were scheduled to meet with state safety officials Wednesday afternoon ahead of the reopening.

J.R. Dehring, vice president for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, said his team is looking at expanding takeout orders and establishing a delivery service to try to increase revenue.

Dehring also said restaurant owners are scrambling to ensure they have enough staff.

"The biggest challenge for us is labor. We furloughed 4,500 employees," Dehring said. "There are challenges with people coming back (to work). And the physical costs of reopening will be significant."

Based on those meetings with restaurant owners, here is what they said customers should expect:

Signs explaining the rules for dine-in service.

Touchless pay options or electronic tablets that can be easily cleaned after being touched.

Clear acrylic barriers or plastic curtains to contain bodily fluids.

Limited menus because of supply issues and possible meat shortages.

Booths that might not be 6 feet apart but are blocked off enough to prevent contamination.

Employees wearing masks and possibly customers as well when threy're not eating.

Additional protective equipment worn by employees, such as face shields.

Longer wait times for tables.

Reduced hours.

Limited hot buffet items.

Cafeteria-style service, with employees giving portions to customers.

Disposable menus.

Waiting in designated areas.

Limited contact with other customers, including quickly passing by when heading to tables or the restroom.

Owners also discussed helping customers navigate social distancing in their restaurants and encouraging patience.

Mike Palmer, president of Der Dutchmen, said for now the restaurant is eliminating its hot buffet except for Saturday morning breakfast but keeping its salad bar to protect customers and employees.

"We're gonna do the best we can with that and live and learn as we go," he said.

Not at all restaurants plan to reopen Thursday. Some owners said they are going wait a month or so to gauge the process because they have only enough money to reopen once or they will go out of business.

"If we are not successful, we are done," said Kamal Boulos, owner of The Refectory restaurant. "That's the reality of it."

Some also might be wary after problems including overcrowding and lack of social distancing that accompanied the reopening of restaurant and bar patios last week.

Large crowds at Standard Hall in the Short North last weekend prompted Columbus Public Health to report social distancing violations to the city attorney's office for potential action.

Chris Corso, owner of Standard Hall and five other restaurants and bars, said he's trying to comply with the state's social distancing guidelines but is not getting help from health departments or other officials.

City Attorney Zach Klein said his office is "still gathering photos, body camera footage and all evidence and facts in order to make a determination of how to move forward'' with the Standard Hall case, if at all.

In an effort to alleviate fears and anxiety about the reopening of dine-in service, the restaurant association has developed the "Ohio Restaurant Promise" that owners will sign and hang in their dining areas.

The promise: to ensure proper sanitation for workers and guests and create confidence among patrons.

Treva Weaver, owner of Zoup!, said a focus group organized by Lt. Gov. Jon Husted came up with many of the best practices being implemented in restaurants.

She said DeWine let the restaurant industry lead the way in developing standards but allowed for spirited debate.

"I wouldn't call this normal," Weaver said. "But it's getting back to opening."

Dispatch reporters Dean Narciso and Randy Ludlow contributed to this report.

lsullivan@dispatch.com

@DispatchSully

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