MAY 21, 2020 / Madison Taylor
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A few hours after North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper unfurled the new and slightly confusing “Safer at Home” phase two plan for reopening the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants and other impacted businesses in Alamance County began their own rollouts for how to serve customers safely in the weeks and months ahead.
And it’s a mixed bag. Some restaurants are planning to reopen public seating in dining areas with 50 percent occupancy in phases. Some are reopening at 5:01 p.m. on Friday when the new regulations go into effect while others are waiting a few days. Others with more limited inside space plan to continue takeout and curbside service but not reopen dining rooms at the moment. And a great many are asking municipal leaders for permits to serve customers on sidewalks or parking lots. And for a few the stay-at-home measure put in place more than two months ago proved insurmountable.
At the behest of Burlington Beer Works Brewery and Restaurant and other establishments, Burlington City Council began discussing outdoor dining options for restaurants this week. They did so knowing that Phase 2 was likely to start on Friday, May 22.
I had a conversation today (May 21) with Peter Bishop, director of Economic Development for the city of Burlington. He’s at the center of discussions about how to help restaurants “enhance their selling potential when they open back up rather than do takeout or curbside service.” A lot of areas outside of North Carolina are already allowing restaurants to use outdoor spaces by creating parklets, utilizing parking lots or even closing some streets temporarily.
The same could happen locally soon.
“I think we can make suburban outdoor dining happen pretty quickly on sidewalks or under-utilized parking lots,” Bishop said. “Downtown we’re looking at (the Historic Depot) space, nearby parking lots or streets for restaurants not near parking lots or the depot space.”
Bishop said the intention is for the city to make it happen.
“It was an encouraging discussion. Council understands that for some restaurants the formula doesn’t work at 50 percent occupancy. Not every restaurant has the same size set up. This is something the city can be flexible on,” Bishop said.
Plans by downtown restaurants make the space issue clear. Valerio’s Italian Restaurant will not open its dining area immediately but will continue to offer takeout and curbside service. Danny’s Cafe and Catering isn’t opening either. It only has a few booths and seats at its counter. It is, however, seeking a permit for sidewalk dining and is continuing to offer takeout and curbside service.
Bishop said The Blend and Co. will continue curbside takeout, which has proved a success. It will also utilize outdoor space in the courtyard beside its Front Street business and STEAM Junction. Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream might also use that space as well as the sidewalk adjoining it.
“If you have an outdoor permit all you need is that owner’s approval,” Bishop said.
Burlington Beer Works will reopen at 5:01 p.m. on Friday, but in phases. It will also continue to offer takeout and delivery. This is how general manager Tracy Schmidt explained the plan in an email to brewery and restaurant owners Wednesday night.
Note use of “RESERVATION ONLY.” That may be the norm for most restaurants going forward, including one of my favorites, Prego’s Trattoria.
Schmidt explained the cleaning process and safety measures the restaurant is taking. It is also joining with Count on Me NC, a statewide group of restaurants or food providers that pledge to follow strict measures and offers training help for staff.
Zack’s Hot Dogs, easily the most popular restaurant downtown and probably in Alamance County, will close on Saturday but reopen for inside service on Tuesday, May 26. It will enforce the 50 percent occupancy rule and staff will adhere to strict health and safety guidelines, including masks.
Bars remain closed, which has seriously impacted and will continue to impact the Public House as well as the Front Street Bottle Shop. Bishop believes the latter may be for sale, something he’s following on a personal level. Whatever happens at that site, he hopes it remains a bottle shop.
“I was a big customer and I’m heartbroken they’ve been closed,” Bishop says. “I was a big customer. I love bottle shops. It’s my kind of vibe.”
Bishop noted some positive developments over the past couple of months downtown. Work is progressing at the sites on Spring Street purchased earlier this year by Casey and Emily Lewis and now aided by a grant through the Burlington Downtown Corporation. Owl and Rabbit Gallery, previously located on Front Street, has moved around the corner to its new larger location. Work is progressing at the former bank building nearby, which will hopefully house a new bakery downtown. For more on this project click here.
Occasions, the buffet-style restaurant, event and catering spot on Front Street is completing renovations taken on during the restaurant shutdown and should be ready to open soon. The work included new flooring aided by a grant approved by the Burlington Downtown Corporation.
And another BDC grant was OK’d for Epic Construction for renovations at the former Subway site at the corner of Davis and Worth streets across from Zack’s. Business owner Brandon Martin plans to open the Davis Street Tap House, which will include an apartment on the second floor.
Bishop added that work continues at the former Company Shops Co-Op on Front Street where developer Wellsley Robinson of Core Properties intends to open a food hall later this year. The lead restaurant, Go Burrito, is still on board, Bishop said. In an Instagram post today the company said interior construction would start in June.
And in a piece of personal good news in my world, the Downtown Barber Shop made this announcement today. I’m getting pretty shaggy.
This is still a difficult time, a very uncertain time for millions of people across the nation. Unemployment remains high. The novel coronavirus continues to spread as science struggles to catch up. Treatments and vaccinations are still some unknown period away. No one has any answers to what’s ahead. Cases continue to go up in North Carolina and Alamance County. But many people in this area and around the nation choose to ignore it. So it pays to be careful.
There are small triumphs amid the pandemic, Bishop said.
“There are exciting things that are still going forward and pushing forward,” Bishop said. We’re doing everything we can to keep businesses rocking and rolling back toward normalcy.”
Bishop is impressed by the innovative thinking he sees among Burlington’s downtown businesses as well as those in Graham and Elon. A webinar hosted by the BDC included entrepreneurs sharing ideas about how to proceed was inspiring, Bishop said. Businesses are making use of social media, developing partnerships or devising events that take social distancing into account. On Friday May 22, Schmidt in conjunction with other downtown businesses is promoting a downtown Art Walk that would have art placed in windows of participating businesses. People can come downtown day or night to view local art and sample takeout from restaurants. It will continue into Sunday.
“Remarkable innovation. It’s amazing what people are doing,” Bishop said. “On the other side, it’s heartbreaking to see people’s dreams go up in smoke over something they had no control over.”