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Restaurants slowly reopen with new social distancing rules

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WAKE FOREST — Restaurants opened dining rooms at half capacity and under strict health standards Friday as Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan went into effect.

Norse Brewing Co. in downtown Wake Forest shut its doors to customers March 17. The restaurant and bar was only three months old and wasn’t set up for takeout, according to co-owner Carl Jorgensen.

“Being told to shut down is never a fun thing, and I don’t think any of us ever imagined it would ever happen,” Jorgensen said. “Part of it was a relief because we did not have to make that decision on our own. We were worried. In the early stages, there were so many things we didn’t know, so we had already talked about cutting back hours or shutting down on our own, but at the same time, it hurt. Now, we have to start all over again.”

Casa Cubana Restaurant & Rum Bar in Wakefield never shut its doors, but pivoted to drive-thru, drive-up, takeout and delivery. It reopened the dining room Friday, said owner Randy Hernandez.

Both businesses said they were glad to be able to have customers sit down inside again.

During its two-month closure, Norse Brewing took the opportunity to refine its procedures, find a new point-of-sale system and allowed brewery manager Brad Winn to get ahead of the demand for Norse Brewing’s beers.

“The lack of beer for a brew pub is difficult,” he said. “We opened so successfully that I thought we’d never have beer. I’d come out with one, and two weeks later, it was gone. We were always running out of our own beer, which is crazy in a great way.”

The two months of closure were difficult, but Jorgensen and Winn were at the restaurant every day working on new projects.

“We learned along the way that we were moving so fast that we never had time to work on things we wanted to do after we opened,” Jorgensen said. “That beer garden never would have been built if it wasn’t for the shutdown. We probably wouldn’t have thought of it because we were so busy. It’s a way to keep capacity and do it in a safe way.”

Norse Brewing now offers guests contactless menus and food delivery using QR codes placed on each table. If guests need to speak with a staff member, they can raise a Danish flag.

While Norse Brewing is glad to be open, Jorgensen does not understand why bars were not included in Phase 2 of the reopening plan.

“We’re sympathetic (to the bars). These people have been in the same situation. We love our friends. That’s why we wanted to be in Wake Forest,” Jorgensen said. “It’s sad. We want them to be open.

“I can understand why they’re a little worried because bars are typically smaller from a footprint perspective, but these places have ample space outside they can use.”

Winn added, “It just doesn’t make sense to us. If we can open, why can’t they? Six feet is six feet. I don’t know why it makes a difference if it’s in a bar versus a restaurant.”

Winn called the distinction a weird caveat.

Casa Cubana said it hopes people will make reservations instead of waiting outside for a table in the half-occupied restaurant.

“We went from 22 tables and 100 occupancy to eight tables and 42 people,” Hernandez said. “Because of the layout of the restaurant, the tables are more than eight-feet apart. We can sit four tables every 30 minutes on the weekend.”

When Hernandez realized dining rooms would be reopening in Phase 2, he and his family reached out to restaurants in South Carolina and Florida — both of which had already reopened — to see what they were doing. Hernandez brought a lot of this tips back, including outdoor tables for customers and not requiring his staff to wear gloves to reduce the risk of cross contamination.

“After they deal with each customer, they sanitized their hands,” Hernandez said. “It’s quicker and safer than having to throw away gloves every time you serve someone.”

Casa Cubana was doing pretty well with takeout and delivery until Phase 1 happened, Hernandez said. Sales dropped as people went to the beaches, South Carolina and other states that had reopened, he thinks.

Now that Phase 2 has started in North Carolina, he has seen sales rise back to early COVID-19 levels, but they are still about 60% below normal.

“Hopefully, it’ll get better,” Hernandez said. “I talk to everybody, and everyone who’s been in since Friday has felt very comfortable. A few people said they wouldn’t have minded to wait another month, but most were excited to come out and eat.

“What was really nice was some people said they were planning to go to a different local restaurant every day to support them.”

He said both staff and customers are more conscious of what they are doing and what they are touching.

However, the restaurant is having difficulties with find staff and supplies. Hernandez said it may take time to get back to full staff.

“Some make more on unemployment. Some are worried about coming back right now,” Hernandez said. “We’re having a hard time getting people. We hope our guests are patient with us.”

His food prices have also risen tremendously, he said. One of his suppliers stopped delivering in North Carolina suddenly while others are having difficulty finding certain items, such as a palomino steak, which is a Cuban staple.

“We’ve found beef at $5.99 a pound. It was $1.19 a pound. In Miami, we saw ground beef at $7.99 a pound,” Hernandez said. “It’s one of the things we have to worry about.”