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What is it like to reopen a restaurant right now?

Marielle Segarra May 20, 2020
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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
Heard on:
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

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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