Restaurants took extra safety precautions to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic

Diners returned to their some of their favorite local restaurants on Monday, as dining rooms around the state reopened after being shut down for more than a month during the coronavirus pandemic.


That ability to go out and sit down to eat comes with restrictions, however. Indoor dining rooms can only seat 25% of normal occupancy, although occupancy is unrestricted outdoors as long as tables are spaced six feet apart and parties don’t exceed 10 people.


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The owners of Outriggers Tiki Bar & Grille in New Smyrna Beach made the choice to close indoor dining until further notice, although they added extra tables to the outdoor seating area bordering the Intracoastal Waterway to compensate. Those tables are spaced at least eight feet apart, further than the required six feet, said general manager Jim Rushing.


"We've completely closed our indoor dining room just to keep everybody outside, where we feel it’s most safe," Rushing said. "We're kind of meeting and exceeding the guidelines."


Almost all 85 employees returned to work at Outriggers on Monday, 75 of which had been furloughed. All employees wore face masks, something Rushing is requiring but the state doesn’t. Another safety precaution not required by the state, disposable menus have replaced normal ones and guests can request disposable utensils, too.


The restaurant’s phone was "ringing off the hook" all morning, Rushing said. Regulars at Outriggers had been looking forward to this day since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banned sit-down dining at restaurants on March 20.


"We're being very safe, but this is probably the only thing I'm willing to risk," said Chelly Harkness, 56, who was enjoying lunch on the waterfront restaurant’s outdoor patio along with her husband, Steve, 58.


"Yeah, right now, I'm not going to go to Hair Cuttery even if they opened tomorrow," Steve Harkness said. "I can't think of a single other thing I’d do other than go out (to eat)."


Chelly Harkness said they’ve been extra cautious lately especially because she has asthma, only leaving the house to exercise or get essentials. They decided going out to eat was well worth the risk, though, because it’s something they’ve missed being able to do. That, and they’ve grown tired of preparing time-consuming meals under the new vegan diet they started about four weeks ago.


The Harknesses, who live in Edgewater, meet up with friends at Outriggers about once per week during normal times.


"We did choose today to come without friends because we wanted to come out, but we're kind of easing into it," Chelly Harkness said.


The couple made reservations for 11 a.m. Monday, unsure if a rush of people would come out for the first day. But by noon, only a few other tables were occupied, including one by the railing where New Smyrna Beach residents David and Julie McKenna sat.


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Outriggers is "one of many" favorite restaurants in New Smyrna Beach for the McKennas. Like the Harknesses, they go out to eat about once or twice per week. They’ve been ordering takeout just as often since restaurants closed their doors to sit-down dining.


"We recognize that the situation with COVID-19 is serious. However, I think that there's a balance that can be drawn as far as living your life in a safe, cautious fashion, but still being able to live freely," David McKenna said. "We decided when things are opening today, that we will go out to eat, and we’re going to go out to eat for dinner, too."


"We also know that small businesses are suffering everywhere," Julie McKenna added. "We want to keep people employed."


Bill and Claire Rocca had been more than ready to go out to eat again during the pandemic. They dine out several times each week, including about once a week at Giuseppe’s Steel City Pizza in Port Orange, where they sat for lunch on Monday.


"It was time for us to get out. We like to go out and be sociable," Claire Rocca said. "We’re very happy they’ve reopened. And they’re doing all the distancing, so it’s working out good."


The Roccas, both in their mid-70s, said they’re not concerned about the risks of going out to eat.


"Just take your safety precautions. If we go into a store where it's going to be busy with a lot of people in there, we will use the mask, but look how far everybody is spaced in here. You don’t have to worry. There isn’t anybody coughing or sneezing in here," Claire Rocca said.


"It's not like we live in New York," Bill Rocca added.


Dining at the other side of the room were New Smyrna Beach residents Dennis and Anne, who declined to give their last names. They were a bit more cautious than the Roccas.


"We have our masks, and we've already washed our hands. You're still concerned, like, I've wiped my glass they gave me," she said.


Julie Mialki, co-owner of Giuseppe’s along with her husband and son, said they’ve put an extra emphasis on cleaning and sanitizing.


She’s ordered masks in case customers request that their servers wear one, the restaurant is using disposable menus and they have added several sanitizing stations. Mialki said staff is encouraged to do whatever is necessary to make guests comfortable.


"I told (my staff), ’look, if you have an uncomfortable customer who is still a little sketchy — they want to get out but they're just a little worried and ask you to put gloves on — do it. If that makes your customer comfortable, do it,’" she said. "We're doing the right things as we always have done, just on steroids. Now, we're doing it 100 times more than we probably need to, but that's okay."


Mialki said about 10 customers were waiting in line outside before Giuseppe’s opened at 11 a.m.


"We had them waiting at the door when we opened, which was wonderful and nice to see, but they're going to be, you know, just going to be cautious when they go out, just like we all are."


Even still, Mialki said the restaurant wasn’t "crazy busy," but she’s optimistic more and more people will be out to eat by the weekend.


"I think people are easing into it," she said. "We've got very great customers that have really, really supported us, you know, coming in saying, ‘We're doing our part so you can still be here when this is all done.’ So that was so nice to me, you know, people wanting to support us."