MADISON, Wis. — Patio or bar stool, sidewalk cafe or upholstered banquette, sitting or standing — safety recommendations for public dining are the same. Stay six feet apart from people you don't live with. Sanitize your hands. Wear a mask when you can.
"Outdoor seating rules are the same as indoors," said Bonnie Koenig, an environmental health services supervisor with Public Health Madison & Dane County. "Physical distancing does not go away because you're outside. It's really about how close you are — whether you're inside or outside, you're still at risk if you're standing too close together and not wearing face coverings."
On June 15, Dane County moved into phase two of the Forward Dane plan, a structured, data-driven reopening schedule to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Restaurants with adequate space for the six-feet-apart guideline can now open their dining rooms to 50% of capacity. Madison has also relaxed its permit rules (temporarily) for outdoor seating all over the city.
Madison will remain in this phase at least through July 6, but Koenig is quick to note that could be longer if required metrics aren't met. More than half the metrics need to be green, and none in Dane County (or the southern region) can be red, The Capital Times reported.
As each restaurant does the calculus on whether reopening at partial capacity makes sense, Koenig said they will not be re-inspected outside of the usual schedule. Public health released a checklist for reopening restaurants that includes questions about physical barriers (like Plexiglas), plans for limiting capacity and handling employee communication — more texts and emails, fewer meetings.
Public health staff called around to restaurants at the beginning of Dane County's emergency response to COVID-19 to check in and keep lines of communication open.
"We believe our restaurants are capable and responsible," Koenig said. "There have been restaurants contacting us with questions because they want to do the right thing.
"We have a lot of new restaurants going into business. I believe that's a real positive sign," Koenig added. "We've been spending a lot of time doing inspections virtually and onsite when safe for new businesses in the food industry — a lot of mobile carts and restaurants."
Shifts in service
Some restaurants seized the opportunity to reopen their dining rooms during phase one. Kavanaugh's Esquire Club reopened on June 2. Delaney's Steaks and Seafood reopened June 5 at 25% capacity. Plaka Taverna reopened its patio, asking diners to call ahead. Bierock reopened with added tap lines.
Some, like Buck & Honey's in Monona and Sun Prairie, have taken deliberate steps to share how they're protecting patrons. Among new changes there is a "shock and shield" system called Omni Shield, which offers enhanced protection from a combination of UV light and an antimicrobial spray.
"All employees will undergo COVID safety training," the website explains. "We are using cutting edge technology generally only used in hospitals and ambulances for sanitizing."
Other restaurants, from Brasserie V to the sushi restaurant RED and The Nile, continue to offer takeout only. Dumpling Haus in Hilldale reopened for takeout only on June 15.
"We currently have no plans to reopen the interior of the restaurant to the public," said James Juedes, co-owner of Casetta Kitchen and Counter downtown. "Our physical space is so small that we feel the best way to serve our guests while controlling the safety of our environment is to focus our efforts on pickup only.
"It's a learning process for everyone. We are fortunate that our business adopts the carryout model easily."
Newer restaurants with a smaller financial buffer were likely to open, or reopen, quickly. The Settle Down on King Street opened its doors for the first time at 25% of dine-in capacity.
At DarkHorse, chef and co-owner Jed Spink said their front of house team sets an alarm to go off every hour. Then they sanitize everything. Hosts are taking the temperature of every diner who comes in. Behind the scenes, the kitchen crew has stayed the same, a small group of staffers all working together daily.
Spink said as the restaurant expands to 50% patron capacity — the number does not include employees — they're observing "the strictest guidelines."
"We do have a patio, which has been great. People are more comfortable outside," said Spink. He estimated DarkHorse brought back 80% of its back of house staff and 40% of the front of house. "People are only getting service from one member of the staff the entire time."
Koenig said diners do email public health to report violations, particularly when they think a business is out of line.
"I find it interesting that people are quick to point fingers at businesses and workers and staff," Koenig said. "I wonder if they're looking in the community as well. People that patronize those businesses are just as responsible. They're showing respect for workers and staff who serve them.
"It's important to remember we're working together."
Koenig knew of restaurants where an employee tested positive for COVID-19, but she kept those establishments confidential. She didn't want to create a stigma for those businesses.
"The last thing we need to be doing right now is creating fear within our community," Koenig said. "We want to support these businesses, and the best way to support them is to make sure they're following all the policies around hygiene and cleaning and protective measures. And make sure our community, when they patronize these establishments, are respectful and continue to practice good hygiene and wear face coverings when possible."
Clean air and chalkboards
John Gadau and Phillip Hurley own three popular restaurants in Madison: the French-inspired, fine dining Sardine, cheery Marigold Kitchen downtown, and Gates & Brovi on Monroe Street.
Only Gates & Brovi has a set opening date: July 27. Sardine is set for sometime mid-August, after a tent goes up outside in the parking lot for more outdoor seating. Marigold Kitchen's reopen date is still open-ended.
"We're sort of hedging our bets," Gadau said. Some of their employees are making more on unemployment than they would coming back to a half-filled-if-they're-lucky restaurant (though that level of support ends July 25). Maybe the restaurant would break even, but in doing so they could create animosity among staff who bear the brunt of increased exposure and risk.
"Waiting sends a message that we're being cautious and patient, that we're making sure it's safe and people are safe when we reopen," Gadau said. "It gives us time to think it through.
"We can get feedback from staff — they're the ones putting themselves in harm's way. We need to listen to them. This gives them the opportunity to have a voice, instead of 'hurry up and open.'"
At Gates & Brovi, the plan is to require reservations from diners. A host could greet guests outside the front doors. There could be "more robust pick-up," with to-go food being passed through the window and managed by that person outside. They're talking about setting up more cashless systems, to not deal with cash in the restaurants at all. The menus will be disposable.
Gates & Brovi will put tape on the floor spaced six feet apart for people waiting to go to the bathroom and remove tables from that corridor. They'll ask staff to wear masks and will take their temperature. They may also ask staff to get tested for COVID-19 before they return to work.
"At Sardine, we're talking about doing no menus and getting more chalkboards," Gadau said. "Not having butcher paper on the tables was a waiter's idea. It's easier. There's less touching when you're sanitizing a table really well."
While Buck & Honey's invests in the "shock and shield" method of UV light and antimicrobial spray, Gadau is intrigued by bipolar ionization. It's a high-tech filtration system that can be integrated into HVAC systems. Some restaurants are looking into this active air-cleaning method as an extra level of security.
When the pandemic hit, Gadau and Hurley had been about to close on a new location on Lakeside Street for a little neighborhood place in Bay Creek. After the coronavirus shut everything down, they hurriedly backed out of the deal (the landlord was understanding, Gadau said).
It felt like a sign, Gadau said, audibly relieved. As for the other restaurants, "We have to open again. We just have to do it in a way that's really, really safe."
For herself, Koenig is going out to restaurants and ordering takeout. She's adamant that, if people take the safety precautions she and others have been hammering home, "we can have a tremendous impact on the spread of COVID-19."
"We all have to be in this together and do the right things," she said. "Be vigilant.
"The virus hasn't changed. It's as deadly as it was when we began this, and we need to continue forward with these good practices."