Georgia restaurants in no rush to reopen, despite governor's decision

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Although nearly two weeks have passed since Georgia Governor Brian Kemp allowed restaurants to reopen dining room seating, owners are reticent to resume business as usual. 

Many eateries across the state are still only offering takeout and delivery options despite the freedom to host customers indoors. 

In an April 21st interview with Fox News’ Martha MacCallum, the governor explained his original decision to halt business operations: “You have to remember the reason we did this to start with is so we had time to build up hospital capacity.”

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Plastic bags mark off seats to promote social distancing at a Waffle House restaurant in Savannah, Ga., on Monday, April 27, 2020. Restaurants statewide have been allowed to resume dine-in service with restrictions after a month of being limited to takeout meals only because of the coronavirus.

Plastic bags mark off seats to promote social distancing at a Waffle House restaurant in Savannah, Ga., on Monday, April 27, 2020. Restaurants statewide have been allowed to resume dine-in service with restrictions after a month of being limited to takeout meals only because of the coronavirus. (AP)

But even as medical supplies meet the surge in demand, restaurant owners cite the complexities created by acting as some of the first public gathering spaces to open their doors. 

Roux on Canton, located on the burgeoning main street in suburban Roswell, waited until May 1st to begin waiting tables—only on the outdoor patio.

“We’re sort of letting time heal the wound of fear,” owner Zach Bramblett stated.  Even as space is hampered by keeping tables at least six feet apart, rushing into dining service could prove alienating to patrons. 

The balance between restaurants showing concern for customers’ health and revitalizing commerce proves delicate; owners understand that public sentiment plays a large role in their success.  Regardless of what the law now deems appropriate, customers won’t come if they don’t feel safe.

Fred Castellucci, who owns seven restaurants in the Atlanta area, conducted a survey among his customers to poll their dining preferences as restrictions ease.  Of the 3,000 responses, just 11% said they would dine inside a restaurant. 

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Corey Brooks, right, orders food at a Waffle House restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, on Monday, April 27, 2020. Restaurants statewide were allowed to resume dine-in service with restrictions after a month of being limited to takeout orders because of the coronavirus.

Corey Brooks, right, orders food at a Waffle House restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, on Monday, April 27, 2020. Restaurants statewide were allowed to resume dine-in service with restrictions after a month of being limited to takeout orders because of the coronavirus. (AP)

Like many owners, Castellucci is not expecting an expedient recovery, but instead focusing on building a business that people can trust to safeguard their health.  Plexiglass barriers and mobile ordering will eliminate person-to-person contact, while new policy cheat sheets will be given to each customer notifying them of new restaurant safety procedures.  

Strategies remain consistent outside the capital city limits.  Bo Henry oversees a handful of food services in Albany, one of the state’s premier coronavirus hotspots.  Varying from fine dining to casual grab-and-go, Henry’s staff delayed in-house seating for over a week since permission to reopen was granted.  Even by taking precautions such as using disposable silverware, his establishments have only seen about 25% customer activity this week.

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Some consumers have developed a hybrid approach when dining out.  Locals of Rabun County have remained in their cars or have set up informal, socially distanced parking lot picnics with lawn chairs.  “People are becoming a little creative,” Clayton Cafe owner Sara Silvio said. 

The new tactics are indicative of people craving social interaction, but remaining hesitant to fully immerse into society.    

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“This is a measured… approach,” Governor Kemp assured citizens just before the ban was lifted. 

Business owners and consumers have responded with a measured approach of their own, and will continue to move at the speed of comfort.