COVID-19

What is it like to reopen a restaurant right now?

Marielle Segarra May 20, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A restaurant reopens its in-person service in Brookhaven, Georgia, on April 27. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
COVID-19

What is it like to reopen a restaurant right now?

Marielle Segarra May 20, 2020
A restaurant reopens its in-person service in Brookhaven, Georgia, on April 27. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
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On a typical Saturday night before the pandemic, Le Colonial — a fancy Vietnamese restaurant in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta — would be full. You’d see bartenders slinging cocktails with names like the Vietnamese mule and large groups sharing family-style dishes like roasted duck in a tamarind-ginger dipping sauce.

The restaurant closed in mid-March and reopened on May 4. It feels different now. The bar is closed. Servers are wearing masks and gloves. The tables are 6 feet apart, with potted palms placed strategically in between.

“We tried our best to fill in the void with the plants and being creative not to make the dining room look empty,” said Hassan Obaye, regional executive chef at Le Colonial.

Only one person is allowed in the bathroom at a time, and there’s a worker assigned to spray it down with disinfectant after every single use.

Courtesy of Le Colonial

Also, the restaurant did away with laminated menus in favor of disposable paper ones and it is handing out throwaway chopsticks — the kind that come wrapped in red paper. 

“Just to prevent, you know, any type of — it’s peace of mind, is really what it is,” said Jake Guyette, the restaurant’s general manager.

Peace of mind. It’s not just how do you make the restaurant safe during a pandemic? But also: how do you make people feel safe? 

Guyette says at Le Colonial, people at different tables — total strangers — used to talk to each other. Now they stick to their groups. And he’s noticed, when they walk to their tables or the bathroom, “there’s a caution on their faces, as far as they don’t want to get too close, you know? I feel like everyone’s scanning each other’s health. How does this person look?”

 A lot of people who do come back want normalcy. They want going to a restaurant to feel like it did before. But things are not the same for customers — or for the restaurant.

Courtesy of Le Colonial

With the changes Le Colonial has made and the rules set by the state, the restaurant is only able to serve about half as many customers as usual.

“No matter how well we do under the constraints that are in place, you are still a far cry from what you’re able to do prepandemic,” said Rick Wahlstedt, who owns Le Colonial and six other restaurants.

Sales, including takeout, are down by 30 to 40%. But Le Colonial still has to pay rent, utilities and wages. It’s brought back about 75% of its workers. 

Wahlstedt says his goal for the rest of the year isn’t to make money. It’s just to not lose money. To survive.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

New COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. are on the rise. How are Americans reacting?

Johns Hopkins University reports the seven-day average of new cases hit 68,767 on Sunday  — a record — eclipsing the previous record hit in late July during the second, summer wave of infection. A funny thing is happening with consumers though: Even as COVID-19 cases rise, Americans don’t appear to be shying away from stepping indoors to shop or eat or exercise. Morning Consult asked consumers how comfortable they feel going out to eat, to the shopping mall or on a vacation. And their willingness has been rising. Surveys find consumers’ attitudes vary by age and income, and by political affiliation, said Chris Jackson, who heads up polling at Ipsos.

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

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