0522 restaurants

The parking lot at Abele's Family Restaurant in Morganton sits mostly empty on Thursday, but dine-in service can resume in North Carolina today.

Anybody who’s ever eaten at Habaneros Mexican Restaurant knows owner Leonard Macias loves his customers.

So, needless to say, he’s looking forward to welcoming them back into his restaurant to sit and eat for the first time in a couple months, even if it’s only at half capacity.

That’ll become a reality at 5 p.m. on Friday after N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced late Wednesday that the state would enter its second phase of reopening from the COVID-19 pandemic that has limited N.C. restaurants to options like takeout, curbside or delivery since March.

“I’m happy about it,” Macias said. “I miss all my customers. I’ll be very, very happy to see them. I’ve been missing them.”

Just as restaurants like Habaneros were getting used the “new normal,” now they’re going to have to go back to the old normal.

Or at least halfway there.

“We were just starting to get used to doing only takeout. It was starting to become less trouble. Now, we’re going back again. ... I just hope and expect the customers will be patient with us, because it’s going to be difficult. We’re going to be at 50 percent. It’s going to be a little bit difficult and it’s going to be a lot of people waiting, especially if they have to wait outside. We’re just hoping for the best, I guess.”

In addition to half-capacity, restaurants also must meet other criteria for dine-in service: table and counter seating must be arranged so that no group of customers is within six feet of any other seated group of customers, and no more than 10 people can be seated together at the same table unless they are from the same household.

Workers are strongly encouraged to wear face masks, and restaurants must continue to adhere to stringent screening and sanitation requirements.

“We’re definitely going to be wearing masks,” Macias said. “We’re going to be doing extra cleaning on everything. I think every time a customer touches a menu, we’re going to have to be cleaning it. That’s with everything. We’re going to have to rounds sanitizing everything.”

One area that brings about uncertainty is buffets. A.J.’s Family Steakhouse said on Facebook it will open a limited buffet at 5 p.m. with special distancing in place. It also says prices will be lowered to help everyone until N.C. moves out of Phase II. Abele’s Family Restaurant also said its buffet will be open.

Eric Johnson, the general manager at Maria’s Italian Eatery, said he hasn’t seen any specific guidance from the state on reopening buffets. He’s not sure the eatery will do so until Phase III.

“It’s kind of murky on that, but as soon as we find out we can, we will,” Johnson said, adding that Maria’s already is planning ahead for when that happens.

“We’ve actually already ordered sanitizing (stations) to be mounted on each end of the bar,” he said. “A lot of things, we’ll just cross those bridges when we come to them. We’ve thought of basically every possibility in between using a clean server for each individual customer and maybe only allowing one person on each side at a time unless you’re family in the same group.”

Johnson said Maria’s was fortunate enough to keep much of its staff during the pandemic, and he expects to have 10 or 12 employees on the clock when dine-in resumes this evening.

The restaurant also was well-positioned to handle the takeout and delivery loads, having a lot of experience with it. But that didn’t mean transitioning to those things only was easy.

“We were already set up to do delivery, so of course that helped us a lot,” Johnson said. “But normally, we would do anywhere from 73 to 75 percent dine-in. And when you take that away, you’re going to go heavy on takeout and delivery, which costs a lot more in terms of paper goods as far as carryout containers and everything because everything has to be in a container and not a washable dish.

“But what it did was since the restaurant’s not designed to operate that way with that volume of curbside or delivery, it was a learning curve. It takes a lot longer to make carryout and delivery than it does dine-in.”

While the majority of restaurants are set for immediate reopening, that isn’t the case across the board.

Boulevard Barbeque says it will resume dine-in service next Wednesday, May 27. It will do takeout only today, Saturday and Tuesday, while being closed Sunday and for Memorial Day on Monday.

“We will be using these next few days for training to ensure excellent service, quality food, and a safe and clean environment for our guests and staff,” the restaurant posted on Facebook.

Homer’s Soda Shop in downtown Morganton says it will not reopen for regular service during Phase II.

“Social distancing is not practical for very many people in our narrow space. In order to ensure the safety of our staff and customers, we will not reopen for regular service during phase 2,” read a post on the establishment’s Facebook page.

To read Cooper’s executive order commencing Phase II that also covers salons, barbershops and more, visit bit.ly/2TqCMFZ.

Justin Epley is a staff writer for The News Herald. He can be reached at jepley@morganton.com.

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