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Area restaurants reopen in time for holiday weekend

News Photo by Julie Riddle Beth VanPamel, owner of VanPamel’s Hometown Diner in Hillman, prepares the restaurant to receive customers as northern Michigan eating establishments open to limited indoor dining earlier this month.

ALPENA — Home-weary Northeast Michiganders can escape their kitchens on this Memorial Day weekend as area restaurants open their dining rooms today for the first time in almost 10 weeks.

Closed in mid-March to dine-in customers by statewide efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus that’s infected 117 Northeast Michigan residents, restaurants in many northern Michigan counties are once again allowed to fill bellies and offer a pleasant respite as numbers of new cases of COVID-19, the sickness caused by the coronavirus, stay stable and recovered cases continue to increase.

Armed with checklists of precautions and protocols to protect the health of their customers, restaurant owners and managers have gotten creative as they juggle the logistics of counting customers, keeping people separate, and making sure staff and diners stay safe.

Some restaurants, like the Court Yard Ristorante and John A. Lau Saloon in Alpena, will hold off on opening, needing more preparation time after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order on Monday surprised restaurateurs with the news that they could open again in just four days.

Other businesses, working at light speed to make decisions, establish policy, and get staff up to speed, are ready to unlock doors, pull out a chair, and cook up a tasty meal for their treasured customers.

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Connie’s Cafe Manager Julie Schultz on Thursday shows the restaurant’s outdoor seating where guests can sit down and enjoy their “take out.” Staff have reduced seating by 50% inside the restaurant for when it reopens today.

A sampler plate of restaurants offered tips to those contemplating a dine-in experience this weekend:

Bring your car

Restaurants are required to seat no more than 50% of their capacity. In many dining rooms, tables have been spread apart or removed, as at Thunder Bay River Restaurant in Alpena where staff spent part of Thursday measuring space between chairs and marking booths where customers won’t be allowed to sit.

If there’s no more space, customers may be asked to wait in their cars, instead of a lobby or congregating outside, until a table is available.

While a few Alpena restaurants, like Twin Acres 19th Hole, are recommending reservations — with a limit of 10 people per table — others will take walk-in customers only. Either way, restaurateurs say, diners may wish to call ahead to check on restaurant policy and wait time.

At Mancino’s Pizza and Grinders in Alpena, a staff member responsible for wiping tables and other surfaces “pretty much every second” will also keep an eye on the number of guests, serving as a sort of sanitation worker/bouncer, according to General Manager Lisa Martin, who, like many other managers and owners, is nervously excited about today’s reopenings and curious to see the effect of the industry’s latest overhaul.

An outdoor hostess station, complete with hands-free spray sanitizer and Xs telling customers where to stand, will help guide diners at Connie’s Cafe in Ossineke. When the restaurant is full, diners can wait in their cars — from which they can also call, order takeout, and eat it in the restaurant’s outdoor garden area in what promises to be beautiful Memorial Day weekend weather.

Beth VanPamel, of VanPamel’s Hometown Diner in Hillman, is a little worried that customers will be upset if they can’t come into the small establishment, where only seven or eight tables will be available. Regular customers understand they’re a small-town business, though, and, she hopes, will be willing to wait as the diner, like most restaurants, figures out the new normal as they go along.

Bring your mask

Per the governor’s orders, diners should wear masks into a restaurant and at any time they are near others, such as on a walk to a restroom. Masks may be removed when diners are seated.

“It’s pretty hard to eat with those masks on,” quipped Bill Peterson, owner of 19th Hole — although, he added, he’s seen masks rigged with a mouth hole that opens with the press of a button.

Wait staff, kitchen workers, and other employees will all be masked at all restaurants as well, according to guidelines, and other sanitary precautions — from packets of salt and pepper replacing traditional shakers to unused salad bars and Plexiglas shields in front of cashiers — will help ensure a safe, if unaccustomed, experience for diners.

Be patient

Waiting may well be a part of the new dining experience, restaurants say. Diners may need to wait for space to open in the dining room, wait for tables to be sanitized, wait for plates to arrive as kitchens prepare food not only for dine-in customers but also for the increased take-out and drive-through business many restaurants have seen during dining room shut-downs.

With fewer tables to seat customers, restaurateurs hope diners enjoy themselves — but then move along, allowing other customers to come in and enjoy the experience, too.

Customers at the Hideaway Tavern, north of Alpena, may have to be patient as busy servers and bartenders find time to scrupulously clean between each set of customers, but the regulars there, as at many restaurants, have been anxious to come back, promising in eager Facebook posts to show up as soon as doors open.

Diners are creatures of habit and all want to eat at the same time, according to Linda Orr, office manager for JJ’s Steak & Pizza House in Alpena, where dinnertime has meant long lines of cars at the take-out window in recent weeks. Coming at off-peak times may reduce the wait, Orr suggested.

“Everyone’s going to get fed,” Orr said on Thursday, preparing for a whole new phase in the world of dining out. “We’re not going to leave anyone hungry, that’s for certain.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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