Burger and Bowl manager Goran Omerdic kept busy Friday by wiping down tables and welcoming patrons as they dipped their toes back into a dine-in experience amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Since mid-March, and as Kentucky gradually reopens its economy, Bowling Green’s eateries have been limited to carryout or curbside service.
Friday marked the first time restaurants were able to accommodate customers for sit-down service, albeit at a third of their normal capacity and with a lengthy list of social distancing and disinfecting requirements.
Despite that, Omerdic strived to exude warmth to his customers – even while wearing a protective mask over his nose and mouth.
“Are we allowed to eat inside?” one furtive customer said after walking in through a pair of open doors.
“You most certainly are,” Omerdic cheerfully replied.
At lunchtime, only about six people dined in the restaurant, which offers a menu that balances comfort food favorites like burgers and fries with more health-conscious alternatives, like colorful vegetable bowls filled with greens, zucchini and avocado slices.
Under the current restrictions, which limit capacity to 33 percent and groups to 10 people or fewer, Omerdic said the restaurant could likely accommodate somewhere between 25 to 30 people. On Friday, his customers were spread throughout the restaurant, cloistered at their tables several feet away from one another. None seemed to be wearing face masks, at least not at their tables.
Omerdic anticipates having to overcome some initial anxiety exhibited by restaurant-goers, but mostly, he’s confident Burger and Bowl can get to the other side of the coronavirus crisis.
“I think people would like to be able to come out and have some sense of normalcy in their lives,” he said. “Right now, the goal is simply to survive and eventually we’ll thrive again. I don’t have any doubt about that.”
Kennedy Davis and Ella Crowe, both 18-year-olds, took the opportunity to have lunch together and take a break from a senior year of high school complicated by nontraditional instruction and disruptions to graduation plans, senior prom and other rites of passage.
For Davis, the experience held a touch of the surreal.
“I’m pretty excited I can actually sit down. It feels pretty weird, but I like it,” she said.
“It feels safe here,” Crowe said.
Neither chose to wear masks while dining out, but they’re not opposed to the practice.
“If we can take any precautions to help, I think a mask isn’t going to be like, you know, a big deal,” Crowe said, adding “Why not?”
Downtown, as she dined outside at Mariah’s Restaurant, Brandy Johnson shared a different view.
“I don’t think that a mask is going to keep you from getting (the virus). So I choose not to wear one,” said Johnson, who works at a local stable training horses.
So far, her workplace hasn’t been as heavily impacted by business closures, but her boss, Joe Harper, was critical of how they’ve been made.
“If you can go to Walmart, you can go to a small business,” he said, adding that restrictions on businesses are “not equal,” in his view. “I feel that it’s not fair to the small business owner.”
The two dined at a table with some friends visiting from Tennessee.
“So far, service has been great,” Johnson said, adding she was happy to support a local small business. “It’s your small businesses that keep everything going.”
Inside the business, workers dressed in personal protective equipment busied themselves by spraying and wiping down tables. One greeted customers from a front desk and showed them to their table, all while wearing a cloth mask.
“This date kind of snuck up on us,” said John Horton, Mariah’s general manager. “(We) took out quite a few tables and now we can only seat a maximum of 111 people inside.”
Throughout the day, Horton said, staff would be wiping down high-touch surfaces, such as door handles. Salt and pepper shakers would be placed at customers tables only upon request, he added.
“No, this isn’t an ideal business model, but we’ll make it work,” Horton said through his own mask.
He requested patience and grace from the public.
“Just be patient as we all try to figure out what’s going on, get back to normal and, you know, figure it out together,” he said.