Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said restaurants and bars may serve customers inside again starting Tuesday, and the government will issue additional guidance on social distancing protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 before the territory begins welcoming travelers again on June 1.
Officials didn’t want residents rushing out to party over the Memorial Day weekend, “so we figured Tuesday we will allow a soft opening of restaurants and bars, so they can understand what their setup is going to look like,” Bryan said. “Spend the time this weekend, get stocked up on the supplies you need.”
Restaurants will be allowed to serve 50% of their Fire Marshal-approved occupancy, or no more than 50 guests, whichever number is lower — and can serve groups of no more than six, spaced at least six feet apart, Bryan said.
Lisa Hamilton, president of the V.I. Hotel and Tourism Association, said she’s reviewed draft local guidelines that have not yet been made public, and urged business owners to follow guidance provided online by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Restaurant Association.
“As far as the destination being ready, we are ready,” Hamilton said. “We’ve been in this staycation mode, open internally now, we’ll be in a four-week run of that as far as nonessential businesses by the time we open.”
From the beginning of the pandemic “we had hotels and restaurants that remained open” to serve government and emergency workers, and provide to-go meals, “so our beaches are open and they’re beautiful, the waters are beautiful,” and businesses and attractions are starting to reopen, Hamilton said.
The reopening should be done “slowly, methodically, safely,” she added, and “our numbers continue to remain flat. We want to make sure that that’s the case because the safety and security of the residents is the No. 1 priority for everyone.”
Sana Joseph Smith, general manager of CHOP Bar & Grill on St. Croix, said they’re planning to reopen for indoor dining some time in the middle of June, after having reduced service to pickup orders only.
“I don’t think there will ever be an opportune time to reopen so we’re going to take a gamble at some point,” and “we’re working on some ideas ourselves just to make our team members feel more comfortable and our guests feel safe,” Joseph Smith said. “One of our big challenges is that the name ‘CHOP’ stands for ‘Crucian Hospitality Our Promise,’ so for us how do we translate hospitality in our service if half your face is covered?”
She said they’re considering clear face shields for servers rather than masks, but the local government has yet to deliver specific guidance, and every precaution and piece of equipment has an associated cost.
Joseph Smith said she’s looking at “easily $10,000 to $15,000” to retrofit the restaurant with plexiglass dividers and other equipment.
“I have the quote sitting on my desk, so it’s on the top of my head. To change your door structure to automatic doors, that can be $6,000 by itself,” she said. “These costs, they add up very quickly without you being fancy, without trying to do too much. The face guards, those run anywhere from $12 on up.”
Childcare is another major concern for her employees, and Joseph Smith said that after furloughing nine of their 12 staff, recalling those workers might be challenging.
“We can understand the need for the unemployment insurance and it is appreciated, but you know, there’s a certain level of employees where it is not advantageous for them to go back to work until that’s expired,” Joseph Smith said. “You really can’t blame them because in this time of uncertainty, we don’t even know how busy our businesses are going to be when you reopen. From what I’ve been feeling, the temperature of the community, I don’t feel like folks are going to be running and clamoring to get out there. Our community is taking a much more cautious approach to getting back into large, closed-in public spaces.”
Katherine Pugliese of Un Amore restaurant on St. Croix said she’s sticking with to-go orders for now, and taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to reopening for indoor dining.
“I think when June 1 comes, I don’t feel that our restaurant will be making any adjustments to our business model right away. I think we’ll be cautiously optimistic,” Pugliese said. “We do have outdoor dining, but I am not settled with knowing that my staff is safe, because of the prolonged exposure with potential guests. They say if you’re with a supermarket checkout person it’s shorter, and you’re with people who don’t have masks on because they’re eating and drinking, and so I think the potential risk to my staff is probably my biggest priority.”
Pugliese has not laid off any of her approximately 15-member staff thanks in large part to her early application for the Paycheck Protection Program, which has helped pay her employees during the stay-at-home period.
While loyal regulars are still ordering take-out, Pugliese said her business has declined significantly, and it’s unclear when she might feel comfortable reopening.
“I’m struggling to figure that out right now, I don’t have an answer for that. Day to day it’s different and it’s changing,” Pugliese said. She urged Virgin Islanders to support their favorite local businesses, and “honestly, the nicest thing we can all do for one another is be there and support one another the best way we possibly can.”