Restaurants and bars began to resume full dine-in service Tuesday in preparation for the territory’s reopening to tourism on June 1.
“It’s very quiet,” said Gladys Jones of Gladys’ Café, located in Creque Alley on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront on St. Thomas. “I think it’s always good to take baby steps, try to get back to normal. I really knew this week would have been really, really slow but I opened up anyway, hope for the best.”
Jones did not offer takeout during Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s stay-at-home order, and said her restaurant is better designed for dine-in service, even with social distancing restrictions that limit restaurants to serving half the number of patrons normally allowed by the fire marshal. Groups are limited to no more than six people, spaced at least six feet apart.
“We have so much space, we don’t even do six feet, we’re doing eight,” Jones said.
Customers are “not nervous at all” about COVID-19 and Jones said she’s eager to get back to business after the 2017 hurricanes, a remodel of her former location in Royal Dane Mall, and a move to a new location after the previous restaurant was destroyed in a fire.
“Now, after I put so very much into it, here comes the pandemic. But I’m not giving up,” Jones said. “It’s safe to come in, just follow the guidelines and everything should be okay.”
Some restaurants and bars are still offering take-out service only as they make accommodations for social distancing.
At Sib’s on the Mountain on the Northside of St. Thomas, server Jay Folk said the local clientele have been respectful of social distancing rules, including customers who wear a mask when picking up their order. Security staff also gently remind customers to disperse if too many people are hanging around waiting to pick up an order, and “I feel safe here” when working, Folk said.
The restaurant plans to reopen for dine-in service on June 1 with additional outdoor seating in the darts area, and Folk said the Video Lottery Terminal operator, Southland Gaming, said there are plans to install plexiglass dividers in the gaming area.
“We’re figuring that all out,” and employees are following CDC guidance when making the appropriate preparations, Folk said.
Ivy Hunter of Leatherback Brewing Company on St. Croix said the beer brewery’s tasting room, which serves pizza, reopened for dine-in service Tuesday after reducing service to take-out only in accordance with the governor’s order.
“A lot of people haven’t opened yet, I know it was a little bit of a surprise that we could open as soon as we were,” Hunter said.
Bryan announced on May 21 that businesses could resume dine-in service after the Memorial Day holiday to serve as sort of a soft opening in the lead-up to the official June 1 reopening date, and many restaurants are still doing take-out only while they make arrangements to comply with the new social distancing restrictions.
“I think it is nice to open our doors before we get many tourists, to get all of our procedures in place and everything. I think we need a little more time under our belt to really know if there are any issues I’m not seeing yet,” Hunter said. “We are seeing some people start to come through, but we’re not seeing a lot of people, which is fine. It makes it easy to make sure we’re following the rules and everything.”
The tasting room has transitioned to menu boards instead of individual menus, and rearranged tables to comply with seating guidelines.
A nearby field used for large events is being repurposed as a socially distanced outdoor dining space where customers “have an open-air environment where hopefully they feel safe,” Hunter said. But the field is typically filled with families every weekend during the busy spring months for events from food truck festivals to concerts, and “who knows when we’ll be able to do events again.”
Supermarket sales rose slightly during the quarantine period but “it doesn’t make up for the loss in sales in draft beer” and the cancelled events at the tasting room, including the brewery’s own second anniversary party, Hunter said.
Hunter said customers are required to wear masks when entering the tasting room, and may remove them to eat and drink.
Hooman Pedram, whose three Tap & Still locations on St. John and St. Thomas reopened for dine-in service Tuesday, said that “I’m kind of surprised that nobody’s really wearing facemasks other than the staff.”
While restaurant patrons aren’t mandated to wear masks as they are when entering other businesses, Pedram said the masks-as-neckwear phenomenon is something he didn’t anticipate.
“They’re wearing them, just not actually wearing them on their face,” Pedram said.
Overall, Pedram said the reopening process has been “relatively smooth” and “the numbers weren’t much different than to-go, but it was a good start.”
Pedram said the key to running a successful restaurant during COVID is to make sure orders don’t get backed up and customers aren’t kept waiting for their food any longer than necessary.
“We’re used to pretty high volume, so the amount of volume that we get right now is definitely way less than what we’re set up to handle,” Pedram said.
He’s using the Paycheck Protection Plan funding to help bridge the gap in sales, and “I think as long as we strive to do more and more every day, I think we’re good to go,” Pedram said. “I don’t see my restaurants having any problems moving forward, if we have business. If we have to shut back down fully, I don’t think we’re budgeted for that.”