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Restaurants try to prolong outdoor dining, safety protocols during pandemic resurgence

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Austin Brothers Beer Co. co-owner Blake Austin shows off one of the many heaters installed at the brewery that will allow people to dine outdoors during the colder months of the year.

ALPENA — Restaurant owners who offered outdoor dining and are now facing cold temperatures and resurging COVID-19 infections in the area are taking steps to ensure they can serve as many customers as possible while keeping them safe.

Earlier this week, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services placed tighter restrictions on bars and restaurants, including requiring them to collect personal information from customers for contact-tracing procedures should an infected person eat at the restaurant.

The new rules come as the virus resurges in Michigan and across the country as people spend more time indoors, in closer proximity to others, making the coronavirus easier to spread.

Northeast Michigan saw the largest number of new infections this week since April and its first virus-related death since August.

The Austin Brothers Beer Co. has relied on an expansive outdoor eating and drinking area for months. Co-owner Blake Austin said his family came up with a plan to continue to serve people outdoors, despite cold weather, during the state-ordered spring shutdown in the first wave of the virus.

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Austin Brothers Beer Co. waitress Jessica Berry cashes out a customer at the brewery on Thursday. The brewery has set up seating and a cash register outdoors to serve customers in the colder months to avoid indoor congregation during the coronavirus pandemic.

He said a series of heaters were installed. He’s also considering retractable canopy walls, which should keep his patrons toasty and protected from the elements.

He said the business also has strict cleaning and masking policies to help prevent accidental spread of the coronavirus.

“We turn the heaters on and we still have people sitting out there,” Austin said. “The screens run on like garage door tracks and can go up and down with the change in the weather. We should be able to keep it open outside all winter.”

Austin said people sit outside and enjoy a craft beer while they wait for a table to open. He said people have been understanding about the way the business is forced to operate now, and added he will comply with the rules and regulations ordered by the state.

“We’ll just keep rolling with the punches,” he said.

The newly opened Red Brick Tap and Barrel has enjoyed immediate success. Co-owner Kevin Peterson said things were going extremely well, but then news broke this week that an infected person had visited the restaurant. He said the local health department put out a public notice that said anyone who was at the restaurant at the same time should monitor for symptoms.

Health officials issue such warnings as a precaution. It doesn’t mean the restaurant did anything wrong or that the person became infected while dining there. It also doesn’t mean the business has to close — only that patrons should monitor for symptoms.

Peterson said business slowed after the public notice, but it has begun to pick back up.

“We were closed for two days, like normal, and took that time to clean and sanitize, like we always do,” Peterson said. “From day one, we have had extra protocols in place to be sure our customers and staff are as safe as possible. My sanitation standards have always been very high.”

In order to limit congestion and people from mingling with one another, Peterson said he removed some seats at the bar and closed areas where people could get bottlenecked.

As far as capacity goes, Peterson said that, so far, he is managing the best he can and he emphasized that all of his employees are following guidelines set by state and federal health officials.

He said he also intends to begin offering meals and drinks to go, which should make some customers feel more secure and safe.

“I know there are going to be people who aren’t going to want to share their personal information, and I get that,” he said. “Takeout would be good for them. I’m also hoping to have outdoor seating at some point when the weather warms up.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.

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