Chow: Gut Check

Tucson Restaurants and Bars Are Reopening. Do You Have Reservations?

As Arizona restaurants return to dine-in service this week by allowing customers to make reservations, a growing number of local restaurateurs and bar owners are having reservations about going back to business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chef and co-owner of The Parish Travis Peters said his place would not be reopening for dine-in services at this time, but they will continue offering carry-out to patrons. The chef said he and his partners aren't rushing to reopen due to a few remodeling projects underway—they're updating their patio and repainting. Peters also said they want customer confidence to return before reopening.

"We're having some construction stuff done so it was kind of an easy decision for us. To-go has been so strong for us that we're just kind of riding it out," Peters said. "We're also waiting for the whole public to get more comfortable and hopefully we can open a warm dining room in a few weeks."

When The Parish does reopen, Peters said he wants the customer to know they'll take every precaution to keep you and your food safe while dining there—as they've always done.

"Restaurants are so clean all the time but I think we're just increasing the guest perception to be able to see the things we're doing...the things we've always done," Peters said. "People want to see their server with their to-go food with gloves on, using sanitizer, wearing a mask. We want the guest to feel more comfortable. This is all new for everybody."

Lindy Reilly over at Fire N' Smoke Wood-Fired Pizza and BBQ is also reluctant to return to dine-in service. He said it's hard to be confident in that business model when customers are already skeptical of take-out food. The cost of reopening dine-in service is just too great for him and probably many other restaurants, he said.

"If customers already have an unfounded fear of takeout food already, I don't need that to compound. Even with limited capacity...if you're going to open like that and carry a staff, you need a full restaurant to make that machine work," Reilly said. "Having a staff when you're partially open...I think you're going to watch some restaurants possibly fold."

Peters and Reilly both agree that the state's guidance for reopening dine-in service is equally unclear as it is unenforceable. Guidance such as "limiting parties to no more than 10," "consider offering masks to wait and host staff," and "operate with a reduced occupancy and capacity" are opaque at best. Furthermore, the state's guidance is recommended, not actually required.

On May 11, the Pima County Health Department issued more specific guidance with a list of 17 protective measures restaurants should "immediately adopt" during the pandemic. These protective measures include minimum health and wellness checks of employees, vendors and on-site delivery personnel as they arrive on the premises; limiting in-door capacity by 50 percent; and a six feet minimum distance between tables, just to name a few.

While health department officials are hoping the Pima County Board of Supervisors will amend county health codes to adopt 15 of these measures during the pandemic, the clarified guidance is still just suggested at this time. If adopted, the two measures that won't be required are having touchless payment systems and requiring all food handlers to have a national safety certification.

"Unfortunately, no one is giving a 100 percent clear guide to move forward. It's just suggestions, which makes it difficult because it's unclear how to navigate," Peters said. "Everyone is doing their best. I hope one of us gets it right because who the hell knows."

Ducey also gave bars that serve food a green light to reopen under Governor Doug Ducey's May 4 executive order. Not only does this allow bars that had a county food permit before the pandemic to resume selling alcohol, but it also allows Arizona bars that never had a food permit in their respective counties to begin offering patrons prepackaged food so they too can reopen. While bars across the state are officially closed, Ducey's order has offered a loophole for bar owners to resume business.

Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak explained the governor's May 4th order doesn't specify that a bar needs a food license to serve pre-packed food. They only need a license and should follow the state-suggested guidance. A state-issued liquor license would be adequate during this unprecedented time, said Ptak.

"The executive order doesn't specify if (bars) need a food license or not. I would focus on: Can these establishments provide physical distancing? That's what we're focusing on," Ptak said.

But enforcement of that physical distancing within bars remains up in the air. Ptak said the administration would count on people to do the right thing.

"We've seen Arizonans act responsibly here and that's what we expect to see going forward," Ptak said. "We can always come back and revisit if we need to but expect people to follow the guidelines."

Eastside bottleshop and

brewpub Arizona Beer House—an establishment without a food permit—celebrated reopening at midnight on May 11 with an "End of Isolation" party. The event had more than a dozen thirsty patrons in attendance. Bartender Greg Turkington said he was happy to be serving beers and looking forward to seeing his regulars again.

"I feel like everyone has got a good enough grasp on the concept of social distancing that we should be able to trust everyone to do the right thing," Turkington said. "We're going to basically trust a lot of people on keeping the right mindset and the right safe action."

Small groups of customers began to stumble in after midnight, seemingly mesmerized they could order pints again and possibly return to life before the pandemic. Turkington smiled as he handed out a bag of chips with each pint he served. He advised groups to keep it to two people per table on the patio.

Owner Brian McBride said it's the fourth time he's rescheduled the event. They had originally planned for reopening April 1, but the governor's March 30 stay-at-home executive order pushed it back to May 1. When Gov. Ducey announced Arizona was staying closed until May 15, McBride pushed the date back again. This time he said he was happy to reschedule after hearing bars would be included in Gov. Ducey's May 4 announcement.

"We're trying to put something out there for people to look forward to," McBride said. "We're trying to do something small. We've never been open past midnight so I figured there's no better time than now to give it a shot."

McBride said he hasn't done much to prepare for customers returning besides implementing a few suggestions from the governor's guidance for dine-in service. They've removed some chairs but since it's a big space with garage doors, McBride said his establishment will feel more outdoorsy than most.

"Everything is already spaced out. We have a huge space so we're lucky for that," McBride said. "We have a big patio and we'll have the garage doors open, so basically it will be like sitting outdoors."

During the reopening party, however, the garage doors remained closed, with chairs and tables stacked in front of them.

McBride doesn't think there is much he can do about enforcing social distancing outside of removing tables and chairs, he said. It's up to the individual to decide whether they feel comfortable with being back in the public, he added.

"We can't really monitor who is coming together and who wants to sit by each other," McBride said. "I feel like people manage social distancing themselves and what they're comfortable with."

McBride also said he was leaving it up to his employees to let him know if they were sick or not. He doesn't plan on checking anyone's temperatures and it will be the employee's choice to wear a mask or not, he said.

"They know if they feel sick not to come into work and that's how it's always been," McBride said. "The masks...that's a tough one. If the employees feel comfortable wearing we'll make that option available."

More than 100 local owners

and employees have signed their name to Too Soon Arizona, an online open letter calling for businesses to stay closed to dine-in and in-person retail service, despite the state lifting restrictions for those industries.

The group pulled together in less than a week after Gov. Ducey's May 4 announcement that certain businesses—retail, grooming, restaurants and bars that serve food—could be reopened before the May 15 end of the stay-at-home order, according to co-founder Jasper Ludwig, owner of 5 Points Market and Restaurant.

She, along with Sally Kane of the Coronet and Allie Barron of La Cocina, spearheaded the initiative for businesses to remain closed to in-person services while coronavirus cases are still on the rise in Arizona.

"Through conversations, we established a small group of business owners who believe that it's not possible to open dining rooms safely," Jasper wrote in an emailed response. "We assumed there were many others who felt similarly uneasy about reopening while feeling pressure to open their doors. This letter is a way for us to communicate to our customers, other business owners and folks making decisions that affect the well-being of our communities, that we're not comfortable opening indoor spaces to the public. It's just too soon."

Mayor Regina Romero also believes it's too soon to return to dine-in service.

"I have expressed my disappointment with this decision as local data and guidance from the Pima County Health Department do not support us resuming our regular activities," Romero said. "I applaud all of the Arizona businesses that are staying strong and finding creative and innovative measures to adhere to social distancing guidelines."

Tucson City Councilmember Steve Kozachik also disagrees with the governor's order to allow certain businesses to reopen, but there's little the city and county can do about it, he said.

"We're under Ducey's thumb to a pretty significant degree," Kozachik said. "He preempts local decision-making on the matter."

Kozachik said he understands businesses are eager to reopen, but the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases across the state are indicative that now is not the time and the public knows it.

"Businesses who have swung their doors open still have got to have customers. I don't think we're there yet," Kozachik said. "You tell me, would you buy tickets to a sporting event or to a movie theater right now, if you could?"

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