Indoor dining resumed this week in Minnesota, giving customers a new — albeit old — way to dine amid an array of options that sprung up in the wake of COVID-19.
“You’re not comfortable inside the restaurant? We’ll bring your food to the car. You want to be outside? Great. Inside? Great, we’ve spaced the tables far apart, we’ll be wearing masks, we’ll be wearing gloves,” said Patti Soskin, owner of Yum! Kitchen and Bakery in St. Louis Park and Minnetonka.
“We’re in the hospitality business. Why wouldn’t we want to welcome people back in? It’s in our nature to be warm, and welcoming, and friendly and loving. We all need that now,” Soskin added.
As of Wednesday, restaurants can seat diners indoors up to 50% of their dining room capacity, maxing out at 250 guests. Tables must be placed at least 6 feet apart, with a maximum number of four diners per table, or up to six if in one family unit.
Reservations are required. Workers are required to wear masks and gloves at all times, and diners are strongly encouraged to wear masks when not eating or drinking. Outdoor dining is limited to 250 people.
Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of the Blue Plate Restaurant Co., which operates eight Twin Cities restaurants, including the Freehouse in the North Loop, is happy about the opportunity to reopen her restaurants’ dining rooms.
“Thank you, governor, we are so excited to give this a try and to be a place for the community again,” she said. “We were down to a few weeks — not a few months — of capital. We were feeling pretty desperate. The governor’s announcement is a lifeline to our business, and it has given us hope. We feel like we have a chance to make it.”
While many proprietors say they’re excited to seat customers within their walls for the first time since Gov. Tim Walz ordered dining rooms to close mid-March, some are taking a more cautious approach to reopening.
“I was happy to hear the governor’s announcement,” said Jeff Burstein, owner of the Brothers Deli in downtown Minneapolis. “[Prior to the pandemic] we had been having our best year ever. But the virus is still here, it’s not going away. I worry about opening, but for my own livelihood I really don’t have a choice. We’ll be open, with minimal staff, and we’ll be following the CDC guidelines.”
But Burstein worries about his restaurant’s skyway location.
“There’s no one here,” he said. “From what I gather, most major law firms and accounting firms won’t be back until August or September. When they do go back, I’m told that they’ll be returning in shifts, 25 percent at a time, and they haven’t decided whether or not they’re going to do catering. The skyways are locked, and as long as they’re locked it doesn’t do us any good to reopen.”
Robb Jones, co-owner of Meteor bar in Minneapolis, said he won’t be reopening his high-volume bar at 50% capacity. “We wouldn’t be able to survive,” he said. Instead, Jones said, his business is “pivoting” to a new “cocktail experience” program.
Additionally, with some restaurants recently reporting COVID-19 cases among staff, “we’re less inclined to be part of the ‘test group,’ ” Jones said.
“It’s a personal decision,” said Becker. “We assured our staff when we closed that we wouldn’t reopen until we felt it was safe for them to come to work, and that they’d want to come to work. If we don’t feel safe, we can’t ask the staff to come in.”
Becker said he’s not sure when they will reopen. “I don’t know when we’re going to be ready, I can’t make any predictions,” he said. “This is a decision that we made a long time ago. Everyone has different circumstances, and I’m not passing judgment on what others do.”
Rather than open her dining room at 50% capacity, Anne Spaeth, owner of the Lynhall in Minneapolis, said that she’ll continue to offer takeout and outdoor dining, and will ramp up her delivery service.
“Our team said that they would feel comfortable in the near term if we stay the course,” she said. “We’re going to concentrate on keeping our people physically and mentally healthy.”
Spaeth expressed frustration at the constantly changing rules.
“I feel like it’s whiplash, again,” she said. “You start with one plan, and you get some momentum going, you build up some traction, and then you have to head in another direction.”
Restaurant consultant Matty O’Reilly, who owns Republic in Minneapolis, Sandy’s Tavern in Richfield and Bar Brigade and Foxtrot Burger Spot in St. Paul, was vocal with his frustration over Walz’s last easing of restrictions on restaurants, allowing them to seat guests on patios only as of June 1.
“With weather, the patio-only plan was about as safe as playing roulette, and nobody should run their business like that no matter how desperate you are,” O’Reilly said. “Now that there is slightly more clarity,” he said, he can “get behind” the governor’s plan.
“Up until today, it was like asking me to dive into a pool with a blindfold on, hoping there is water,” O’Reilly said. “Now I know there is water. It’s still a little murky and I’m not sure how deep it is, but I’m just thankful I can swim.”