As some Central Ohio bars and restaurants prepare to open Friday for patio service, others say it's too soon.

Normally, the timing would be perfect: The city, caught in an unseasonably cool spring, is beginning to warm up this week, and Ohio’s restaurant and bar patios are free to open back up, beginning Friday. Instead, there are plenty of clouds surrounding the much-anticipated restaurant reopening of 2020. Only one thing seems certain as Ohio’s reopening begins amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Uncertainty. 

Despite the state’s new social distancing and other safety guidelines in place, Wolf’s Ridge Brewing co-owner Bob Szuter says the state’s decision to reopen patios on Friday and indoor dining on May 21 is too hasty.

“Even reducing tables to no more than 10 folks, keeping those [6-foot] distances, there's still the exposure to our staff that is going to be a primary concern,” he says. “I understand the importance to get things open, but if we do this too soon and we see another spike, we're all gonna have to do this over again. That is the absolute last thing that I would want to have happen.” 

Since Ohio’s dine-in ban began on March 15, Wolf’s Ridge has found a way to sustain its business safely, through beer delivery and food takeout, and that’s what Szuter plans to continue doing for now.

"It doesn't make sense for us to refocus our efforts on something that is ultimately going to be decided by the general public. If our customers won't feel safe whether or not we're following the guidelines … they're not gonna come,” Szuter says. “We’re going to focus on what's working well for us and has allowed us to operate safely, and that's our beer delivery and food carryout and delivery options.” 

Meanwhile, restaurants such as Arepazo, High Bank Distillery Co., Lindey’s and Standard Hall plan to reopen patio service this weekend with new social distancing guidelines in place. Cameron Mitchell Restaurants also announced this week that select locations, including The Avenue Steak Tavern (both locations), Mitchell’s Ocean Club and The Pearl (both locations), will reopen outdoor and indoor dining next Thursday. 

Vaso, the AC Hotel’s restaurant and bar in Bridge Park, is among those embracing the governor’s green light. Its rooftop patio, a big draw for its panoramic views overlooking Dublin, is set to open Friday, followed by indoor dining next week. Orcun Turkay, corporate director of food and beverage operations for Shaner Hotel Group, believes some customers are ready. 

"I know people are eager to get out and dine,” Turkay says. “So, we're going to do our best to accommodate as many people as we physically can."

Turkay’s team has studied what restaurants are doing in Asia to safely reopen, and Vaso has a socially distanced floor plan in place. The rooftop patio is sizable and features some barriers like curtains around cabanas. Also, Vaso is doing away with physical menus. 

"We're putting QR codes on our tables so you'll be able to pull up all of our menus with your phone,” Turkay says. “So, there's one thing less to worry about." 

“If the health experts and the people in the restaurant industry got together and made this decision, I'm going to respect it,” he says. “If they're saying that it's safe to operate this way, we're gonna go with it. It's hard for me to sit here and judge people [whether it’s] early or late. But we're going to do our best, obviously, to protect our employees and our guests.”

Last week, Huong Vietnamese Restaurant, a family-run eatery off Morse Road that has been doing carryout, polled its customers on Facebook about whether they feel comfortable dining in this month. With most customers saying they’d prefer to continue ordering takeout, chef-owner Huong Pham has decided to wait. 

Besides, with new social distancing guidelines, the 14-table restaurant would essentially be cut in half, a level of business that may not be worth the safety risk to Pham and her husband, seniors who fall in the most at-risk group.

Still, carryout sales have been slow for Huong. Pham’s daughter Twee Win says the restaurant is doing about a third of the business it did before the COVID-19 outbreak. She says they plan to reassess the option of opening their dining room in the coming weeks, but they want to see Ohio’s COVID-19 case count go down first.

For some bar owners, the decision whether to reopen is about safety but also about staying true to the customer experience they seek to provide. Law Bird, which would have celebrated its 6-month anniversary last Thursday, has been completely closed since March 15. Its owners, Annie Williams-Pierce and Luke Pierce, aren’t rushing to reopen the 1,500-square-foot cocktail bar, a space that includes a 17-seat bar top. "We're going to be a little bit more conservative when it comes to opening,” Pierce says.

Law Bird offers an intimate experience, Williams-Pierce says, one that relies heavily on service and atmosphere. “We have to figure out how we continue the Law Bird experience, and we think the best way to preserve that is going to be through a pickup, at-home sort of modification.”

Law Bird didn’t offer carryout sooner, she says, because they wanted to be deliberate not reactive, knowing that carryout is likely to become part of the new normal. The couple plans to release their new to-go program in a few weeks.

“For us, we think that a good, consistent, thorough way to start to recoup some sales is to put together this really thoughtful carryout program that's ... going to be part of our revenue stream for quite a while," she says.

Restaurants are dealing with other stressors around reopening, namely the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, a $659 billion pool of federal loan money meant to aid small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis. (Alive wrote about the topic this week.) The first-come-first-served loans can be forgiven if certain guidelines are met, including that 75 percent of the money be spent on payroll, and that it be spent over an 8-week period. The catch? The clock starts ticking when the funds are approved. For many restaurants—the 8-week period started in the middle of the state-mandated shutdown on dine-in service, after staff were laid off. 

Wolf’s Ridge was able to secure a $600,000 loan through the PPP, but Szuter says he may end up giving much of the loan back. By the time Wolf’s Ridge is ready to rehire its full staff and reopen, its 8-week window to use the funds will be up. “If we got that money starting at the end of May, when things were opening back up, then that would line up better. But at the end of the day, we're going to end up giving a lot of it back, because we can't justify having that loan on our books. I think that's counter to what they tried to do. So that's something that's really making this harder as well.”

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