For restaurants operating under strict public health protocols during the pandemic, any small bit of good news is worth celebrating.
While certainly not game-changing, the relaxation of certain rules that took effect Monday represented progress, said Peter Barnard, owner of the Impudent Oyster in Chatham.
“It’s been helpful,” he said. “Everything helps.”
Announced last week, the changes allow restaurants to seat dining patrons at the bar provided that parties are spaced at least six feet apart and are adequately separated from staff work areas. Groups of up to 10 people can also be seated at a table instead of the previous cap of six.
Mac Gallant, co-owner of the Jailhouse Tavern in Orleans, said that provision is certainly welcome, since requests for tables of seven or more people happened “all summer long.” Most of the large parties were “families vacationing. And it was problematic, not from what we were able to do, but problematic trying to explain the rules to them.” Patrons, particularly from out of state, didn’t know why they could be together without masks at home, but couldn’t gather in groups larger than six in a restaurant. But the rules allowed restaurants to seat such groups next to one another, “so we’d have to split parties up a lot.” Allowing groups of up to 10 will certainly help, Gallant said.
With regard to bar seating for dining patrons – bar alcohol service remains prohibited – the state is working to clear up some ambiguity about the “staff work areas” behind the bar, Gallant said. By the rules, patrons must be at least six feet away from “active” work areas, or there must be a physical barrier like a clear plastic panel separating customers and staff. A gap of no more than eight inches can be included in the bottom of the barrier for food and drink service.
The regulations specifically aim to help restaurants safely increase their indoor capacity as outdoor dining becomes more difficult with cooler weather. Shane Coughlin of the Wild Goose Tavern at the Chatham Wayside Inn said they’ve always offered outdoor dining, and it’s always been popular.
“We have lights and heaters, and I will continue to use the outdoor dining as long as possible,” he said. “A lot of guests are just wearing an extra layer when it’s cool in the evening.” And the increase in the cap on large parties will help, particularly with multi-generational family gatherings, Coughlin said.
“It’s going to help us, for sure,” he said.
Explaining the limit on big family gatherings has been a challenge, said Jennifer Ramler, who owns the Cape Sea Grille in Harwich Port with her husband, Douglas.
“They would say, well, we’re one family. We’ve been quarantining together,” she said. “I had a situation, for example, this past Sunday, where I had a guest who had a reservation for a month for an anniversary,” Ramler said. The customer wanted to increase the number of seats from six to eight and “we weren’t able to seat them right next to other,” she said.
Cape Sea Grille has eight tables on its covered patio and 11 on the lawn, and while lawn service will drop off when the weather gets colder, the patio is heated and well lit. “People have really been enjoying the outside,” Ramler said. The restaurant plans to extend patio service through Dec. 1. “I’ve got blankets that we offer everybody,” she said.
For their restaurant, the reopening of the bar for dining patrons is critical, Ramler said, and a few regulars immediately made reservations for bar seating.
“They just like the feeling of being at the bar,” she said. “It’s mostly locals.” When the new regulations were announced, Ramler immediately bought Plexiglas for the bar; since then, some people have reported having trouble finding it in hardware stores and online.
Gallant said the revised regulations are helpful, “but ‘helpful’ is subjective,” he said. “We’re adding bar seats, but we’re going to lose the outside seating” when the weather turns cold and darkness comes early. People might not know it, but restaurants operate on a thin profit margin, he noted.
“This business needs to operate at 100 percent to make it happen,” Gallant said. Though the situation is better, “it doesn’t mean it’s good.”
Coughlin said he’s pleased with the way officials have found ways to allow restaurants to operate while protecting the public health.
“I think we are moving in the right direction,” he said. “And I think everyone should be pleased with how the state and local government has been handling everything.” Coughlin particularly praised Chatham’s community development and health departments, as well as the police and fire departments.
For many restaurants, the key goal is to survive long enough to see a time when they’re returned to full capacity. When will things get back to normal?
“I don’t think God knows,” Barnard quipped.