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On perfect day for outdoor dining, Durham restaurants begin to reopen

Posted June 1, 2020 12:44 p.m. EDT

— Durham restaurateurs had to wait a week longer than their Triangle fellows to welcome diners back for table service. That gave them additional days to work out how to protect employees and patrons.

When Gov. Roy Cooper moved the state to Phase 2 of a three-phase plan to reopen the economy after the coronavirus shutdown, Durham leaders hesitated. Mayor Steve Schewel said an accelerating rate of coronavirus infections in Durham prompted local officials to prevent restaurants, salons and some other businesses in Durham and Durham County from opening before Monday. When the city/county stay-at-home order lifted Monday at 8 a.m., Joe Choi, owner of Namu, was ready.

"Oh my gosh, it really feels like we’re opening for the first time again," he said.

"It was great to interact with customers through curbside, but this will be really cool and exciting to see people, to just kind of enjoy what we’ve created."

At Namu, at 5420 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd., has a large outdoor space where diners will be welcomed to enjoy the restaurant's "creative Korean fare & craft coffee."

"We’re calling it picnic at Namu gardens," Choi said. "We’re not opening the inside yet. We’re just going to open the beautiful garden, because one of the biggest selling points of what we do here is the garden."

Choi's excitement at being able to open for diners is tempered by the limit on capacity imposed by the state. Restaurants are required to limit the number of customers to 50% capacity or no more than 12 customers per 1,000 square feet. Tables must be spaced 6 feet apart, and where people are seated at bars or counters, they should be spaced at least 6 feet apart. The Durham order allows for no more than 6 people per table.

"We won't make a profit until we’re back up to 100%. Restaurants work on a very thin margin," Choi said. "No restaurant could make money working at 50% capacity because rent is way too high. The overhead costs are way too high for us to operate at 50% and make any real profit."

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