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Patrons weigh in on restaurants’ return across the country

News Photo by Darby Hinkley From left, Ann Burton, Lora Greene and Julie Robinette dine outside at Hungry Hippie in Alpena, Michigan. The trio is comfortable with outdoor dining now, but they are not ready to eat inside restaurants yet, as a precaution to avoid possible exposure to COVID-19.

Now that restaurants and bars across the country are slowly reopening, experimenting with limited capacities and social distancing guidelines in their dining rooms, patrons have been wrestling with whether they feel comfortable to sit at an indoor eating space that isn’t their home.

Oren and Melanie Spiegler, of Peters Township in Pennsylvania, were eager to return to restaurants once they opened their doors for inside service.

“Dining is my lifeblood, one of my favorite leisure activities, and my wife and I do a lot of it at a wide variety of restaurants,” Spiegler said this week in an email. “It was a hard blow when the pandemic hit, rendering dining impossible for so long.”

Do the rest of consumers agree with Spiegler? Ogden Newspapers spoke with people in five states to see where everybody’s mindset is when it comes to heading back out to restaurants again.

MICHIGAN

At Hungry Hippie in Alpena, Michigan, on Friday, some people were comfortable with the open outdoor dining, but have not yet been out to eat indoors since the pandemic warranted a shutdown in mid-March. Hungry Hippie is a walk-up restaurant with picnic tables outside.

“This is my first time out,” said Julie Robinette, who was dining with friends, all wearing masks.

“I’m only comfortable with this type of scene,” she said of the outdoor dining. “I think it’s obviously a lot safer. I’m just being cautious, and indoors it just seems like there’s more chance to contract the virus.”

Her friend, Lora Greene, agreed, stating that Friday was her second time out to eat, but she has only dined outdoors since restaurants in Northern Michigan reopened on May 22.

“I’m not ready to eat inside,” Greene said. “I just don’t think the distancing is enough in an inside setting, based on the air circulation and other issues, so I’m just not ready to take that step.”

Seated next to her at the table was Ann Burton, who said she has been supporting local restaurants by ordering take out, but this was her first time going out to sit down and eat since COVID-19 closures started.

Other Hungry Hippie patrons said eating at restaurants is fine with them, inside or outside.

Trevor Davidson and Danielle Gillespie enjoyed lunch on a sunny day, sans masks. They both work in the health care field, so they have to wear masks all day at work. They said they wear them in public when required, but not outside.

“I think our local businesses have done a really good job at supporting the social distancing and all the guidelines needed, so I don’t have any concerns,” Gillespie said.

“I don’t have any concerns either,” Davidson added. “I understand that people are probably more comfortable outside, or a lot of them are wearing their masks even outside, when they’re sitting out eating, but it doesn’t really bother us.”

They are happy to see things opening back up and more people out and about.

“I think it’s good for our tourism and our economy here in Alpena,” Gillespie said of being able to support local businesses again.

“I’m very, very glad things are opened back up,” Davidson said. “I mean, a lot of these Mom and Pop shops like this, how long can they last shut down?”

OHIO

With indoor and outdoor dining reopening in Ohio in May, many have been returning to their favorite spots for a meal.

Linda Trager, of Wellington, said she and her husband haven’t made it out to eat yet, but that she can’t wait for when they do.

Her husband recently had surgery and is using a knee scooter, which makes going out to places difficult.

“I just haven’t had the time,” Trager said. “It’s not conducive to go anywhere with [the scooter]. But yeah, I would go out to eat.”

She said she is “so looking forward” to going out for dinner, but worries about what others are doing.

“I have no problem wearing the mask,” she said. “I know I’m good about washing my hands but you don’t know that everybody else does. I don’t know their hygiene.”

She said she’s had sanitizing wipes in her car long before COVID-19, so keeping them now as a result of the pandemic isn’t much different.

Heather Hemenway, who works in Norwalk, said she has gone out to eat once. She took her children to Panera Bread for a meal and said she felt comfortable with the experience.

“It wasn’t that busy, so that was nice,” Hemenway said. “I was mostly just keeping my kids from running around, touching everything. They had the tables separated so you could only sit at every other one. It was nice to get out.”

Hemenway said her children didn’t wear masks while at Panera but she has been careful whenever she’s been out.

She then added that she and her partner are planning on going out tomorrow without the kids, which they haven’t done yet, and she’s curious how it will go.

“We haven’t been out to dinner without the kids yet,” Hemenway said. “I’m ready for it, so if I can get a babysitter, I’m out.”

KANSAS

Maddie White has been eating in restaurants, but she always sits outside, and when she has to go in, she’ll put on a mask.

In Lawrence, Kansas, restaurants were allowed to reopen for dine-in services on May 18. White works in the restaurant industry as a bartender and a server, so she’s familiar with the procedures and precautions in place in many eateries around town.

“I have been trying to support places as I can even though it’s not comfortable going out,” White, 22, said. “I want to support people because I know of the situation I was in and am currently in with money. It is hard on us because we are going to be the most impacted, so I try to do what I can, but there’s only so much that you can do.”

White said she isn’t entirely comfortable eating out because she’s concerned about the uptick of cases in Douglas County, where Lawrence is located. On June 19, Douglas County extended its third phase of reopening because of a significant increase in cases.

On June 19, Douglas County reported 91 cases. On June 5, the county had reported 70 cases, which meant an increase of 21 cases in two weeks.

Compared with some surrounding counties, where cases number in the thousands, an increase of 21 cases in two weeks would likely not be substantial. But in Douglas County, prior to June 5, it had taken nearly six weeks, from April 25, for the number of COVID-19 cases in the county to increase by 21. The number of cases jumped from 47 to 49 on April 25.

Erin Griffeth, 41, and Ben Chen, 40, said Wednesday was their first time out at a restaurant, and that they were there on a date because they had a few hours away from their kids. The couple, who was eating outside, said they wouldn’t have felt comfortable eating inside the restaurant, but that their experience felt “pretty normal” compared with restaurant experiences prior to the pandemic.

Twenty-year-olds Abby English and Peyton Doherty have felt safe eating at restaurants, and have sat both inside and outside. On Wednesday, they ate outside Jefferson’s Restaurant.

Doherty said he’s noticed that restaurants have done a good job of eliminating much of their seating in order to ensure social distancing, and English said that at another restaurant in town, patrons are required to wear a mask everywhere except at a table.

Despite feeling comfortable going out to eat, English said, “We’ve definitely done takeout a lot more,” while Doherty added that they will likely stop going to restaurants should the number of COVID-19 cases in Douglas County continue to increase substantially.

Melissa Mitchell, 51, and Anne Hollond, 49, ate outside at Zen Zero on Wednesday. It was Hollond’s first time out to a restaurant since the pandemic began, and only Mitchell’s second. They appreciated that the restaurant had switched to virtual menus, which could be accessed by searching for the restaurant’s wifi.

Both Mitchell and Holland said they only met up because they knew the restaurant was being cautious. And Mitchell said she thought she should go eat at a restaurant in person while she could. She feels Lawrence is in “a lull between waves.”

PENNSYLVANIA

In Washington County, Pennsylvania, people have enjoyed the return to restaurant dining.

Dana Stainbrook, a nurse at Washington Hospital who recently took a voluntary layoff due to the pandemic, said that she recently dined out at The Union Grill in Washington this week.

She and a group of nurses, who all worked in the ICU together at the hospital in the 1980s and 1990s, usually go out to lunch once a month. On Tuesday, they reunited, after months of social distancing.

“A few people didn’t go, as they’re still concerned about the virus,” Stainbrook said. “One of the ladies said how nice it is to actually be with other people. It was good to get together.”

Stainbrook said there was only one other table with people dining when they were there. She ordered pepperoni rolls, and her friends ordered fried zucchini, a fish sandwich and a cheesesteak sandwich.

“We’re going to do the Union Grill next month too, because everybody really loved their meal,” she said.

In the last week, Oren and Melanie Spiegler, of Peters Township, Pennsylvania, have eaten out a few times, including at the Golden Corral and the Capital Grille.

Their last meal out before the state shut down in March was at Max and Erma’s in Peters Township, a restaurant that has since closed down.

On Tuesday, they returned to their favorite Italian restaurant, Franco’s Trattoria in Peters Township, the day it opened. Spiegler said it was nice to be able to see the owners and the staff again, instead of eating at home “in front of the television.”

“It was not quite normal as the restaurant appropriately takes proper safety measures, including the owners and staff being masked, but it was close enough,” he said.

Spiegler ate chicken parmigiana, chicken pastina soup, pasta and fried zucchini.

“Everything tasted especially good on this night!” he said in the email. “It was a meal I had thought about for a long time, every bit as enjoyable as I anticipated, and something for which I now have a new appreciation.”

Kate and Matt Speer, of Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, were finally able to return to their favorite spot near their home, The Bar Association. She said that before the pandemic, they typically ate out twice a week. She said they recently enjoyed martinis, lobster rolls and good service while they were out.

“We have four kids, so this is our favorite date-night place to go without the kids,” she said. “It was our most missed place.”

Charlene Williams, of Amwell Township, Pennsylvania, and her daughter, Faith, used to eat lunch every Saturday at Shorty’s, a hotdog shop in Washington. After the shut down in March, they still got takeout every weekend.

“We consider the staff our friends, and we were happy to support them through the tough times,” Williams said in an email.

As soon as they were able, they made Shorty’s their first dine-in destination.

“There is absolutely nothing more comforting than sliding into our favorite booth and ordering up some delicious hot dogs and fries with gravy,” Williams said. “We’re always greeted with smiles, and they know our order before we even sit down.”

WEST VIRGINIA

Charleston resident Cleve Persinger travels throughout the state for his job with the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists and he’s glad to be able to eat inside establishments instead of his car.

“We’ve been cautiously going places,” he said Thursday before having lunch at Chams Lebanese Cuisine in downtown Parkersburg. “I’ve felt safe, especially at restaurants that space out and follow the health department guidelines.”

Those include limiting capacity to 50 percent and ensuring 6 feet of distance between seatings.

“It’s a comfort too, knowing that restaurants are taking this seriously, that they’re not just looking forward to opening up to make money,” said Persinger’s co-worker, Zack Sampson, of Huntington.

Persinger said in addition to enjoying the food, they like supporting businesses in the communities they visit.

“A lot of these folks took a hit” while partially closed due to the pandemic, he said.

Parkersburg resident Hannah West said she’s been to a number of local restaurants since indoor dining resumed. She said she feels comfortable with the steps they’re taking, including having employees wear masks.

“It seems like every place we’ve been has had, like, designated sections where we’re supposed to sit and people are not supposed to sit,” she said.

For Brenda Johnson, also of Parkersburg, it’s still too soon to dine in. She said she doesn’t eat out much anyway and usually gets takeout on her lunch break.

“Due to the pandemic … I did go to the outside dining once,” she said.

Parkersburg resident John Nicholson, meanwhile, said he and his wife Lynn aren’t worried about the effect of the virus on themselves but they are concerned about potentially spreading it to more vulnerable individuals. That, combined with the ease of picking up food and eating at home, is why they haven’t dined in since the option became available.

“If we were eating out, we would probably prefer outdoor dining versus indoor dining,” Nicholson said. “I’m glad to see the restaurants opening back up. I’m glad to see people out and about.”

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