When the Flathead City-County Health Department ordered bars and restaurants to close their doors to the public to prevent COVID-19’s spread on March 19, Cypress Yard General Manager Morgan Cawdrey began a takeout service in hopes of maintaining some business.
But Cawdrey ended up halting takeout and delivery to allow his employees to shelter in place while he figured out summer events and booking refunds for the restaurant’s catering service.
Now that restaurants, bars, casinos, breweries and distilleries are allowed to reopen with restrictions, as of May 4, Cypress Yard is transitioning back up to dine-in services, but Cawdrey and other restaurateurs now face a new host of challenges in order to keep customers and employees safe.
“Nobody really knows anything,” Cawdrey said. “It feels like we’re all guessing.”
The state has imposed strict restrictions in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which include businesses closing by 11:30 p.m., heavy sanitation of surfaces between customers, half of normal operating capacity, six-foot table and seven-foot gambling machine spacing, no barstool seating, no standing and table limits of six people.
Cawdrey says Cypress Yard will be able to accommodate around 50 seats, and he plans to put up a 20-foot-by-40-foot outdoor tent with heaters for outside seating. Servers will be instructed to space themselves six feet from customers when possible. Communal kids toys in the restaurant have also been removed to reduce COVID-19’s spread.
Steve Nogal, a former restaurateur who now works as a consultant, says kids’ actions will need to be addressed in order to prevent the virus’ spread.
“Let’s say there’s a young family that comes in, there are two small children … all of sudden the child gets up and starts crawling all over the table and chairs and the parents don’t do anything about it,” Nogal said. “At what point in time do we need to do anything about that behavior?”
In this situation, Nogal says restaurant staff would need to be aware of what’s going on and do an extra deep clean and sanitation of the area once the family leaves.
Erin Krueger, the taproom manager at Sacred Waters Brewing Company, says the brewery has also removed kids games and toys with a note in the taproom that tells parents that their kids must stay with them. Staff members are also being instructed to ask people in groups of over six to separate themselves.
“There’s going to be some proactivity on our part,” Krueger said.
Lisa Cloutier, owner of Whistling Andy Distillery in Bigfork and Montana Bonfire in Woods Bay, planned to reopen this week, too. Along with deep cleaning and sanitation, her staff will wear masks and gloves as extra precautions.
“I think that we are going to stick with the old rule, which is we have the ability to refuse service to anybody,” she said. “So unfortunately if people aren’t following with the guidelines, we will ask them to leave.”
At the Bulldog Saloon and Grill in Whitefish, owner Eric May is making sure to follow all state and local guidelines and has removed all barstools and redesigned the floor to accommodate the six-feet-apart rule.
With no standing allowed in businesses, May says he’s training his staff to keep watchful eyes on customers.
But while many businesses are anxious to reopen, some continue to stay closed as a safety precaution.
“It’s difficult to see how table-service restaurants can reopen dining areas and still follow current social-distancing guidelines,” said Carla Fisher, co-owner of Backslope Brewing in Columbia Falls.
Fisher says the owners plan to reopen once they’ve had more time to assess and ensure the safety of their customers and staff. For now, Backslope is continuing its takeout service, which includes growler fills and food items from its restaurant.
Nogal, who has been consulting with local restaurants in the area, says it’s important for restaurants to think outside the box and not expect operations to be the same as they were before the shutdown.
Establishing protocols like following public-health guidelines, using contactless payment, deep sanitation and asking customers if they’re exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, is crucial in maintaining safe environments while keeping business moving, he said.
“I think a lot of people assume we will go back to the comfort zone we were in not too long ago,” Nogal said. “Businesses need to learn how to survive with half the dining space taken away. You really need to look at your revenues and your expenses and you have to look at that fine line where it will succeed or fail.”
Correction: This article previously stated that The Raven would be reopening instead of Montana Bonfire.