Restaurants, salons, pools can reopen this weekend, but gyms, bars cannot

Posted May 20, 2020 6:33 a.m. EDT
Updated May 20, 2020 9:59 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday that North Carolina will enter the second stage of a three-part plan to resume business and social activities during the coronavirus pandemic on Friday, but earlier plans for the stage have been scaled back.

Cooper said his statewide stay-at-home order, which has been in effect since late March, will end at 5 p.m. Friday. But he is replacing it with a "safer-at-home" approach.

"The increases in the COVID-19 cases signal a need to take a more modest step forward in Phase 2 than originally envisioned," he said at a news conference. "Safer at home means just what it says: Just because you can go more places doesn't mean you always should."

While restaurants can open indoor dining areas and hair and nail salons and barbershops can operate at half of their allowed capacity, bars, fitness centers, movie theaters and other indoor entertainment venues and playgrounds must remain closed for at least another five weeks.

"We can only help our economy when people have confidence in their own safety, which is why it's important to ease restrictions carefully," Cooper said.

Gatherings indoors will continue to be limited to 10 or fewer people, while the cap on outdoor gatherings will be raised to 25 people, he said. The outdoor limit applies to outdoor entertainment venues like amphitheaters and stadiums, as well as beaches and parks, he said.

"When people gather together, one person can be the spark to spread the virus to many," he said.

Still, swimming pools can open at half capacity, and summer camps – both day and sleep-away – can operate under guidelines issued by public health officials.

Restaurants will have to adhere to guidance issued by the state Department of Health and Human Services, such as keeping tables at least 6 feet apart, having people waiting to be seated stand apart outside or remain in their cars, using disposable menus and utensils and screening employees and customers with temperature checks.

Joe Lumbrazo, owner of Backyard Bistro in Raleigh, said two months of being limited to takeout and delivery orders have cut his sales by 95 percent.

"It has been killing us," Lumbrazo said, noting that he's ready to abide by all of the new rules to get people back inside his restaurant.

"This is a whole new ballgame. We are not just talking about, can I get your burger right. We are talking about making them feel comfortable for coming out and sanitizing after each visit," he said.

Backyard Bistro workers will wear masks and plastic face shields. Customers will have their temperatures checked. Many tables will be moved out to allow for social distance, and the ones that remain will be sanitized – along with the menus – before and after customers eat.

“You have one barstool, we will take out six, another barstool and take out six," Lumbrazo said, "We can usually fit about 130 people here at the bar. Now, it is going to be like 25 people."

A room for special events that is already separated from the rest of the restaurant by glass will be reserved for older diners and others at high risk of infection, he said.

A number of restaurant owners said they may not open right away. Some want to wait to see how others fare, and some say the financial numbers don't work if they have to operate at half capacity.

Katsuji Tanabe, who opened High Horse in downtown Raleigh in October, said he is among those who plan to wait. In addition to not wanting to police his customers' behavior, he said he worries about a new viral outbreak.

"The last thing I want is to be the No. 1 place to be reinfected with coronavirus," Tanabe said.

When he decides to turn the lights back on, he said he thinks he as the room to make it work.

"At 50 percent, I do not have a problem," he said. "I have an outside, I have a back room, I have a front room. Even if I am at 50 percent, I can still do those good numbers. Ninety percent of restaurants do not have the luxury of that much space."

Salons, barbershops, tattoo parlors and massage therapists also will have to limit the number of customers and take other safety measures to protect customers and employees, such as wearing masks and disinfecting equipment after each customer.

"I know a lot of people keep discussing the financial side of it, but me personally, I just miss the connection with clients more than anything in the world," said Beverly Reddinger, who had to shut down her Refinery Salon in Cary just two weeks after it opened.

Reddinger said she has sanitized her salon and will limit the salon to having no more than two stylists working at a time while putting more than 6 feet of space between working stations.

"We are so heavily regulated as an industry already," she said. "If you touch something, it can’t touch another client. Everything is set up so we don’t spread anything to anybody."

Some nails salons are prepared to use plastic face shields and gloves in addition to masks, and some barbershops have put plexiglass between chairs.

Lux Salon owner Karen Francis had her two Raleigh locations cleaned and drew up a plan for reopening.

"We are going to be at least 10 feet apart for the clients being serviced," Francis said.

For senior stylist Madeline Butler, she expects work will be a different experience for both her and her customers.

"You’re putting yourself out there every day after you’ve been so careful to stay home and ordering in," Butler said. "They won’t be able to see my smile, and it will probably be a lot faster and we are going to have to keep things limited as far as our shared time together."

Cooper's Republican rivals were quick to laud the reopening of more North Carolina businesses while again questioning his strategy in addressing the pandemic.

"While North Carolina's reopening has lagged our neighboring competitors for too long, this is welcome news for thousands of families who rely on revenue from businesses in our state," House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement. "All business rely on certainty from state government to plan for challenges ahead in any economic circumstance, so it is essential that moving forward our economic response to this pandemic be based in transparent data that considers stark contrasts in urban and rural regions of our state."

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger last week pushed for local flexibility in reopening restaurants and salons, and he said Wednesday that Cooper's decision comes as the state continues to see a growing number of infections.

"I’m glad the governor has responded to the calls of senators, small-business owners and unemployed workers to let them get back to work," Berger said in a statement. "It seems strange that it was unsafe to reopen last week, but it’s safe to reopen now with worse numbers. This gets back to the central question of what strategy is driving the governor’s actions. What goal does he think is achievable?"

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