SALT LAKE CITY — Sean Miller and his employees at the Park Cafe spent Tuesday morning on the patio, setting up tables with a tool now commonplace in restaurants across the country — a tape measure.
On Friday, customers will be allowed to eat inside for the first time in nearly two months, although it’s up to Miller and his employees to make sure everyone follows the six-foot rule.
“I miss everybody, I even miss people telling me I did something wrong,” he said.
On Tuesday Gov. Gary Herbert officially scaled back Utah’s coronavirus risk level to “moderate,” meaning certain businesses, like gyms, salons and restaurants, will be able to resume limited operations come May 1. The new guidelines still mandate social distancing, restrict group gatherings over 20 people and require employees to wear masks and have their temperature taken every shift.
“This is not going back to business as usual, we’re not to that point yet,” Herbert said during Tuesday’s press conference.
While the announcement is exciting news for business owners like Miller and his employees, many Utah restaurants are now facing a mountain of logistics — just because they can open, doesn’t mean they will.
“It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, to be told you have to cut off 75% of your operations, does that make sense businesswise?” asked Thomas Robinson, district manager of Chuck-A-Rama, a buffet-style restaurant with locations in Utah and Idaho.
“If we open up and four tables come in, how is that helping anyone?” he said. “It might be quite a while before we open.”
Robinson described a headache many restaurant owners and managers are currently experiencing.
They have to schedule employees, many of whom were laid off, furloughed, or simply afraid of going out in public. They need to order ingredients, despite disruptions in the supply chain, including meat processing giants like Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods recently closing their plants. They need to restructure the entire restaurant layout to adhere to social distancing guidelines. And they need to buy masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and other personal protective equipment, now the industry’s standard garb.
“Would I love to open Saturday? Yes. Can I commit to my employees coming back on Saturday? No, because I don’t know. There are a lot of logistical headaches,” said Fred Boutwell, director of operations for Market Street Restaurants. As a business that prides itself on fresh seafood, Boutwell said it’s a gamble opening up on Friday.
“I’m in the fresh fish business, I can’t say ‘Here, let me give you that bit of halibut that’s been sitting around for four days,” he said. “I don’t want to be sitting on three restaurants full of perishable items — there’s no way to know if I’m going to sell them.”
Boutwell is leaning toward opening, although he said he’s still “playing it by ear.” If the Market Street Restaurants do open, only every other booth and table will have seating; employees will be given masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and have their temperature taken before work; counters and bars will be closed; only one person will be allowed to run the cash register; and extra staff will be brought in to help enforce the six-foot rule.
“There’s just so many dynamics to the operation,” said Boutwell.
While the “moderate” designation offers Utahns some relief, it will be a while before things are truly back to normal, especially in the restaurant industry. Miller told the Deseret News that the Utah Restaurant Association is planning for the “moderate” designation and the guidelines that come with it to last until October.
“This could be our new reality until we have a vaccine,” Miller said.
But Tuesday’s announcement offers a glimmer of hope. It’s been a tough few months for Utah’s businesses, restaurants included. In just a few days, Boutwell went from having 350 employees spread out across Market Street’s three locations, to less than 30. At Park Cafe, Miller had to dip into his personal savings to keep the restaurant afloat.
“We’re all collectively a little nervous, but I think going into (May) first, everybody’s excited,” said Miller. As he set up the tables outside with his employees Tuesday morning, scores of people stopped by, excited at the mere prospect of the Park Cafe being open.
“Even if we’re all spaced out, it will be alright,” he said.