The fond memories of indoor dining — the collective clattering of utensils and glasses, the casual conversation on every table and the hustle and bustle of restaurant staff aiming to provide the perfect experience — have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic for roughly a year.
When patrons dine in, it’s a source of pride for restaurant owners like Patel Presh, co-owner of Sweet Magnolias Cafe and Bakery.
“When you dine in, it’s a full experience, the food is fresh and hot, it’s a good time to be with friends and family,” said Patel. “People bring in families, out-of-town friends, and it’s a time to bond together over great food and great experiences.”
But as COVID-19 began disrupting everyday life, health officials identified the dangers of indoor dining amidst a global pandemic.
Since March, CDC officials have been consistent in their message regarding indoor dining during the pandemic: it’s a high risk for spreading the virus.
In September, a CDC report found that adults who reported that they dined at a restaurant — surveys included indoor and patio diners — were “approximately twice as likely” to have tested positive for COVID-19 as those who did not frequent restaurants.
When Patel had to close Sweet Magnolias for two months, he said it was a “difficult time.”
“We had to transition to carryout and takeout options primarily, which leads to a shift in how much you’re making and customer expectation,” he said. “It was a very uncertain time.”
According to the CDC, the virus is predominantly thought to spread from person to person through droplets produced when someone infected with the virus coughs, sneezes, or talks — or, say, raises their voice as they split a bottle of wine over dinner.
Georgia’s policies on indoor dining have been a rollercoaster.
On March 23, Gov. Brian Kemp ordered all dining rooms and bars to close. A month later, Kemp rolled out a plan to resume dine-in service under a set of safety guidelines, including limiting parties to no more than six people per table, setting capacity limits and thorough sanitization of surfaces.
Since June 13, restaurants are no longer under limits to require the number of people dining in and masks are required for restaurant staff, but not patrons.
And recently, Gov. Kemp issued an executive order for Georgia’s COVID-19 guidelines, ordering restaurants and businesses to make sure their ventilation systems are operating correctly.
Poor airflow in indoor establishments has been linked to increased transmission of the virus.
In a December study conducted in South Korea, researchers detailed how three people seated near a “ceiling-type” air conditioner were infected with the virus. According to researchers, an air conditioner blew droplets containing SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — toward the other people in the restaurant.
But most restaurants have already checked their ventilation systems for best-case airflow since March. Owners of three restaurants contacted by The Times said they had ensured their ventilation systems were up-to-date before the governor issued his executive order this week.
But other challenges remain.
For local restaurants, lack of staffing and high burnout is an evergreen issue, exacerbated by a global pandemic that has required a change in business models.
“People will always eat at restaurants, that hasn’t changed,” Tina Roberts, owner of 2 Dog said. “What has changed is the expectations for restaurant staff, and how restaurant staff across the board are in a tough situation.”
Roberts said that 2 Dog has limited its dine-in capacity to 50 percent, in addition to adhering to recommendations from health officials and emergency orders from the state.
“Right now, our biggest problem is staffing,” she said. “That’s number one on the list.”
Restaurant staffing levels have dampened throughout the pandemic. Even with a spike of 230,000 jobs in the fall, following relaxed lockdown restrictions across the country, restaurant employment was still below 2.3 million.
“It’s always been like this, running through holidays, knowing our staff is relentlessly working 24/7 and it doesn’t stop,” she said. “If you stop, you go out of business., Unfortunately, it’s what (restaurateurs) sign up for when you enter this industry.”
But Roberts said what’s kept her restaurant afloat regarding business and morale has been her customer base’s patience and kindness.
“I’ve had lots of customers who’ve seen how our staff has been affected by the pandemic and they’ve been very generous with their support, donations and overall, patience,” said Roberts. “The reason they did that is that my customers saw my staff dwindling away and saw the predicament that restaurants like ours are going through.”
Julia Still, Harvest Kitchen owner, has only experienced operating a restaurant in a pandemic, opening her establishment in August.
But the pressure to stay open is still felt.
“It's definitely been a constant challenge to do our best to provide a safe dining experience for our guests in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Julia Still, owner of Harvest Kitchen. “It has been challenging, but ultimately, we either rise to the challenge, or we shut the doors.”
Still said that Harvest Kitchen had cut its indoor capacity by roughly 30% and expanded to offer delivery and curbside pick-up as well as a dining patio to help make up the difference in decreased indoor dining.
“The pandemic has thrown many wrenches into production and logistics lines that has steadily increased prices of restaurant staples,” Still said. “I would say it's tougher than ever to be a small, locally owned business.”
Still said the prospect of indoor dining is still attractive, despite the risks.
“I think if anything, COVID-19 and social distancing has increased the appeal of dining out, but it has also introduced some new deterrents,” she said. “I think as a society, we are craving community and realizing we were not made for isolation. The idea of gathering around a table with loved ones to break bread is more appealing than ever right now.”
When Sweet Magnolia reopened its dine-in services in the fall, compliant with ventilation, capacity and sanitization expectations, Patel didn’t know how many customers would still want to dine in.
However, as the state’s vaccine rollout phase 1 population — which includes residents 65 and older, law enforcement and public health personnel — continues to get vaccinated, Patel said he’s seen newly vaccinated customers returning to dine-in.
Patel hopes that as more people gain access to the vaccine, patrons will go back to dining in, even if it’s a little different.
“There’s an experience to dining-in that won’t ever go away,” said Patel. “It’s been great to see longtime customers, those who are a little older coming back to eat after getting vaccinated. It gives me hope.”