Gov. Jim Justice on Monday announced that local restaurants may open dining rooms to 50 percent capacity on May 21, during the fourth week of “West Virginia Strong - The Comeback,” Justice’s plan to reopen business in the state.
Justice said Week 4 starts on May 18, but he wants to take a few more days to make sure testing numbers continue to be good and restaurants are ready to reopen. Currently, West Virginia's positive test rate for COVID-19 is under 2.2 percent.
There are certain rules, including social distancing; the use of disposable menus; drinks must be served in cans, bottles or disposable cups; buffets and self-service are off-limits; disposable flatware is encouraged; physical barriers such as plexiglass must be installed, where feasible.
Area restaurateurs had different reactions to the governor's announcement on Monday.
Lewis Rhinehart, owner of The Secret Sandwich Society in Fayetteville, said his store will stick to curbside service.
“What a nightmare,” Rhinehart described the litany of rules that will allow restaurants to admit half of their customers. “Until we can be 100 percent for dine-in, we’re going to continue as we are, with curbside service, and we’re allowed to put a couple of tables outside in the town park, and we’re going to continue with that.
“The way we’re doing it now, you call ahead, you order over the phone, you pay over the phone, you pull up front, we bring your order out to you.
“I think we’re going to stick with that, for now.”
Rhinehart said the decision is not just about the cost.
“We don’t want to put anybody in danger, and the staff doesn’t want to be in danger,” he said. “Especially here, in Fayetteville.
“If West Virginia is opening up earlier than surrounding states, all of the sudden, we’re going to have people pouring in here from surrounding states that have infection rates, and we’d just be contributing to the problem, at this point,” Rhinehart said. “Especially if we’re having dine-in.”
Many area restaurants have been offering curbside pickup since mid-March, when Justice issued an order closing dining rooms.
“The way it’s going with this curbside thing, we have learned a lot,” Rhinehart explained. “And I have a feeling that’s going to be industry-wide.
“I don't think the restaurant industry's ever going to be the same, after this, anywhere — in the United States, especially.
"It may, eventually, get back to normal," he added. "But my gut kind of tells me, this year, it's not going to be anything close to normal."
Richard Jarrell, owner of Chick-fil-A restaurants in Galleria Plaza, Hylton Lane and Crossroads Mall, has been offering drive-through service at his Galleria Plaza and Hylton Lane stores.
He said Monday that the drive-through service will continue, without reopening of dining rooms on May 21.
“This is more about responsibility than a race to open,” said Jarrell. “We will continue to do exactly the way we’re doing business, currently.”
Just down Hylton Lane, however, Outback Steakhouse manager Justin Lilly was already anticipating the opening of the Outback dining room. He said Outback will start admitting guests to the dining area at 4 p.m. on May 21.
“I just want to see people,” he said, laughing.
The new guidelines are not an issue for his Australian-themed restaurant, which is part of a popular steakhouse chain.
“I think it’s just a minor thing, to be able to accommodate guests and get them back in the building,” he said.
At Calacino’s in Beckley, owners Jeff and Jamie Weeks have been sprucing up their popular pizza shop, which has a thriving bar and dance floor and attracts musical acts.
Jeff Weeks said Calacino’s will open on May 21. For the Weeks, the decision to open was not a hard one. The couple applied for but did not receive an emergency loan from the CARES Act in March.
“We’re a mom-and-pop place,” he explained. “We’re not a chain.
“We’ve been closed for a month. Obviously, financially, it’s been a really big challenge,” said Weeks. “We’re at a point that, if we don’t reopen and get something coming in, we’re in danger of not being able to ever reopen.”
They decided to close in order to support their workers, who could qualify for state unemployment and federal aid if they were laid off — a better financial option than working curbside carry-out for reduced tips.
“All of our staff have become like family,” Weeks said. “We’re very close. They’ve got kids. We’re close to their families.
“We’ve built really strong relationships for our employees, so it was really hard for us to continue to have one or two there working while the rest are off,” he said. “It’s almost like a punishment.
“So we just kind of chose to close and take care of some of the little things we’re wanting to do around the restaurant, and let them be able to draw unemployment.”
He said he hopes the 50 percent rule will expand to 100 percent capacity in short order. Until then, he said, Calacino’s will open under the governor’s guidelines.
“As far as safety goes, I guess I kind of look at it like this: We’ve been going to places like Lowe’s and Walmart and those types of places pretty regularly, and, of course, they’re completely packed,” said Weeks. “We encourage people, if they feel safe, to come out.
“We’re going to provide distancing between the tables, and we’re counting on people to make that decision for themselves.”