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As COVID-19 Restrictions Ease, Restaurants Rethink Their Business Model

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A coalition of independent restaurants is calling on Congress to help the industry. Several states are allowing dining to resume but with limited capacity. And all that has many restaurants rethinking how they operate. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Florida eased restaurant restrictions this week, and the Flora-Bama Roadhouse was back in business.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Yes, I am a pirate...

ELLIOTT: This sprawling 11-acre complex on the Gulf of Mexico at the Florida-Alabama state line is known for its live music, Gulf oysters and cold beer.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Coors Light and a Miller Lite.

ELLIOTT: But there are no throngs of people dancing. Indoor bars and pool rooms are closed. Outdoor spaces are sit-down dining only. A hostess will seat you at a picnic table that's been set in the sand at least six feet away from other tables. Signs are posted throughout showing what physical distancing looks like in a very Florida way.

CAMERON PRICE: One alligator apart.

ELLIOTT: Cameron Price is one of the owners here.

PRICE: You know, we're trying to do the right thing as a business. So we have to walk that difficult walk of being the enforcers and at the same time being the people that are trying to help you have a good time.

ELLIOTT: Having a good time looks a lot different today than it did when the Flora-Bama shut down on March 16, a week ahead of stay-at-home orders. It was packed with spring breakers at the time. During the shutdown, owners and managers planned for how to get it back in operation, transforming from a crowded bar to a spread out restaurant.

DESTINY MCQUEEN: Coming down oysters.

ELLIOTT: Destiny McQueen is wearing a mask and gloves and glad to be back shucking oysters after more than a month without pay.

MCQUEEN: I was happy when they called us back to at least come start getting the place cleaned up and stuff. And then when we found out we were opening, it was great.

ELLIOTT: Workers are screened for symptoms before starting their shifts. There's a new handwashing station and rum-scented hand sanitizer scattered around the property, all part of new protocols aimed at keeping workers and customers safe. As more states lift coronavirus restrictions, restaurants around the country are trying to figure out what the future holds.

NAOMI POMEROY: We know that we're walking into something that we're really not sure what it's going to look like.

ELLIOTT: Chef Naomi Pomeroy owns the restaurant Beast in Portland, Ore., a small space with communal dining.

POMEROY: I'm pretty sure that nobody's going to be clamoring to sit at a communal table and until everyone's vaccinated. So I need, at my own restaurant, to be able to restructure my whole plan.

ELLIOTT: Pomeroy is one of the founders of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a group calling on Congress to pass a $120 billion fund to help restaurants and their laid-off workers. They say the Paycheck Protection Program isn't working for them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the food and beverage industry lost 417,000 jobs in March, 60% of the nation's total job losses. Part of the equation for getting back is when and whether customers will return.

Chef Donald Link owns a group of restaurants in New Orleans, including Cochon and Herbsaint. He wonders whether people will be able to afford to eat out and if they'll be anxious about returning to restaurants or even to New Orleans.

DONALD LINK: It's still going to be a long time before we can get the tourists back. I mean, I don't think everyone's going to be jumping on airplanes in four weeks.

ELLIOTT: He plans to go to reservations only in a spread out dining room so people won't linger waiting for tables, and no hot sauces or salt and pepper shakers on the tables.

LINK: And then, you know, I assume we'll be all wearing gloves and masks, which is a bummer. There won't be a lot of hugging and handshaking and backslapping and all that. But we're trying to make it sterile and actuality, but not, you know, I don't want people to feel like they're dining in a hospital room either.

ELLIOTT: Link says customers and staff will have to adapt to prevent a resurgence of the virus, which he says could cost lives and destroy the restaurant industry. Back at the Flora-Bama, customer Tom Denev was glad to be back, even in new circumstances.

TOM DENEV: It's the right thing, you know. You know, got to get the businesses going again. But we also have to have safety.

ELLIOTT: The new protocols seem to hold on the Flora-Bama's first day back. The challenge will come with larger crowds as the weekend nears.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Perdido Key, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.