Arkansas restaurants were allowed to begin reopening for dine-in service Monday, but many are waiting until they feel more comfortable letting patrons back in during the coronavirus outbreak. Some also said that with already thin profit margins, it doesn’t make sense from a business perspective to reopen.
Restaurants have been restricted to take out, drive-thru and delivery service since March 19. Under this first phase announced on April 29, eateries are limited to one-third their normal capacity, have groups limited to 10 people or fewer and tables must be spaced 10 feet apart. Employees must also wear masks and be screened for the virus daily.
Mark Abernathy, owner of Loca Luna and Red Door restaurants in Little Rock, says he doesn’t want to open in the current environment.
"I don't want the dining experience at Red Door and Loca Luna to be masks and rubber gloves and not being able to go to the bar and not being able to talk to other people in the restaurant. To me, that's not why you dine out," Abernathy said.
He is taking this as an opportunity to make extensive renovations to his restaurants. Abernathy said he plans to reopen for curbside and take-out service before reopening the dining rooms.
Katherine Eldridge, owner of Doe's Eat Place in Little Rock, also decided not to reopen now.
"We just didn't feel like it was the right time," she said. "At 33% capacity, we would be lucky to break even, and it's just not worth the risk to my staff."
Eldridge plans to expand outdoor seating and hopes to open Doe's when the state announces phase two for restaurant reopenings, which would allow seating at two-thirds capacity.
Ron Settler, owner of Sims Bar-B-Que in Little Rock, said he too doesn't feel it's time to let customers back inside his restaurants.
"I'm definitely not going to do that,” he said. “I'm going to continue the service I've got, which is take-out only."
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Settler says 70% of his business was from take-out. One Sims location has temporarily closed, he said, but the others have received enough take-out orders to sustain staying open.
Settler said he’s also concerned about the supply of meat. Some meat processing plants across the country have been forced to close as the virus has spread and Settler said he has noticed.
But one place that is welcoming customers back is lunchtime hamburger restaurant The Box. It has provided take-out service since restrictions were imposed in March and owner Kelly Wayne Joiner was ready to take a step toward returning to normal. Tables inside the restaurant are spread out to meet the new spacing requirements, but will make it difficult to make a profit.
"The 33% restriction is quite an obstacle to overcome because once we get everybody seated, nobody else can come in. But still, it's better than a goose egg," Joiner said.
People hoping for a sit-down meal are advised to call ahead to see if restaurants they hope to patronize are open. They should also bring a mask, health officials say, and wear them when not eating.