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How some Charleston restaurants are carefully restarting outdoor table service

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Forty-eight hours — that was the time between the release of Gov. Henry McMaster's guidelines for reopening restaurants and the morning of Monday, May 4 when local eateries were able to serve customers outdoors. Some establishments chose to exercise caution, while others used the weekend to revamp their space and attempt to adopt the advised safety precautions to restart service.

Before reopening on May 4, Frothy Beard Brewing Company co-owner Michael Biondi met with staff to run through how they could limit contact and interaction on their patio.

"Luckily we have a lot of the resources needed to do patio dining," says Biondi. "We have 14 tables outside now and they're all spaced out at least 10 feet apart." To create more space, Frothy Beard staff put up tents over each table.

The West Ashley brewery's patio may be open, but things are not quite back to business as usual at Frothy Beard. Biondi says they are leaving individual items such as single slices of pizza off their limited menu, and orders will arrive in single-use to-go boxes.

For Biondi and his team, the guest safety comes first. The brewery has a list of steps they are taking to ensure social distancing and safe patio dining. To keep customers in the loop, whether they are on their way or debating venturing out, they posted the whole thing on social media.

Uptown Social reopened their rooftop dining area on King Street this week - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Uptown Social reopened their rooftop dining area on King Street this week

Making new rules is one thing, but enforcing them is another, especially at high-volume bars like Uptown Social where lines around the block were normal on most pre-coronavirus weekend nights. Prior to the reopening of their rooftop on May 4, co-owner Keith Benjamin and his staff had a plan to maintain social distancing at the 10,000-square-foot establishment.

"We have security downstairs at the front door and a floor manager upstairs making sure that everybody stays seated," says Benjamin. "We laid out the patio in a different format than anyone has ever seen before with multiple tables 8 feet apart. We have 72 seats total. The total on our certificate of occupancy for outdoor seating is 143 people, so that's been cut down by about 50 percent."

Still, patrons shouldn't expect quite the same experience when they go in for another round. "If you come to order a drink at the bar, you'll be told to sit back down at your table."

The rules set forth in Gov. Henry McMaster's May 3 executive order are based on guidelines for reopening crafted by the state Restaurant and Lodging Association's recommended. The recommendations urge restaurants to adopt practices such as wearing gloves to give patrons a "psychological sense of safety" and limiting seating to the "appropriate level based on square footage and layout of the dining room."

The 10-page document says restaurants are responsible for holding their customers accountable.

"All restaurants that provide outdoor patio venues must adhere to strict mitigation standards preventing the spread of COVID-19. The general operating matrix will require spacing of groups, limiting concentration of people, strict use of PPE, and frequent sanitizing."

For now, Edmund's Oast is choosing to keep their spacious outdoor bar and patio closed, a move owner Scott Shor says was made with the thought of a "second wave" of restaurant closures in the back of his mind.

"The amount of restaurants we would lose due to a second mandated closure would be mind boggling," says Shor. "I think it's very important that we get this right the first time."

Shor says that because of this, his team is not in a rush to reopen outside. "I feel strongly that we are not immediately ready to pursue that."

By making the announcement just over two days before the permitted reopening, McMaster put restaurants in a difficult position, Shor says. "I don't think this should have been dumped into our laps with so little notice."

Shor recognizes not every restaurant is in the same boat. "Everyone has to make the best decision for their people. If they are doing everything the way they are supposed to then I don't judge them for opening."

Down the road at Home Team BBQ, owner Aaron Siegel doesn't fault anyone for reopening, but says he isn't ready to do so at any of their four South Carolina locations.

"We just started takeout on Friday [May 1], so we are just trying to get our process down," Siegel says. "At the end of the day, we have to make sure that our employees are comfortable. I look for them to drive the bus. That's what got us where we are. We're all having to exert some patience right now."

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