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Increased capacity may not be on many restaurants’ Phase 2 menu

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Al fresco dining in Wilmington | Photo c/o City of Wilmington

Delaware restaurant inspectors found that restaurants were “receptive” to restrictions during Phase 1, with only a few stumbling blocks that were dealt with through education rather than enforcement.

But the big challenge in Phase 2, as the state doubles capacity limits from 30% to 60%, is that many restaurants can’t expand because of the stringent requirement that tables be 8 feet apart.

“We’ve seen some issues and opportunities to educate about mask wearing and distancing, but most were only one or two violations that they were able to fix so we could move on,” said Jamie Mack, section chief for the Health Systems Protection unit of the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH). “We reinforced that customers had to wear masks when they weren’t at the table and had some challenges with employees, particularly with some back-of-house workers. We understand those challenges and are having conversations about next steps.”

The state got off to a slow start with inspections during Phase 1, which ran from June 1-15. In a late May interview with the Delaware Business Times, Mack said he was expecting his 20-person team to do 60-100 inspections per day but they only completed 50 in the first two weeks as they slowly returned from other assignments, including working with the State Health Operations Center. Mack also said at the time that while inspectors are “not turning away from food safety, our first priority will be COVID-19 compliance.”

Delaware Restaurant Association President and CEO Carrie Leishman said she’s heard that the inspections were cordial and educational, adding that she’s “really proud of the industry for adhering to the guidelines.”

But Leishman said many restaurants are finding that it’s difficult to go much beyond 30% capacity with the stringent 8-foot spacing.

“We’re not seeing that anywhere else in the country,” she added. “Our [new] bar-seating allowance is proper social distancing. We just want the same language for our tables, particularly since many of our restaurants can’t take advantage of things like outdoor seating.”

“I’ve been impressed with how seriously the restaurants are taking this and how everyone is doing the right things in the right way,” Mack said, acknowledging that there will be an “adjustment period” to the increased capacity allowance with the 8-foot restrictions still in place.

Delaware has about 4,000 businesses that are registered as a food establishment. Mack said that his team is looking at a cross-section of restaurants so that they can understand where they need to focus future inspections. That could include small independent operators, a specific restaurant chain, or larger, more popular restaurants.

“We haven’t received any food-establishment complaints in the last week or so after a few initially,” Mack said. “We have seen some folks try to get creative and do some things we don’t allow, and we did identify a few places that didn’t have permits.”

But Delaware restaurants waiting for the removal of restrictions in Phase 3 may have to wait longer than expected.

Gov. John Carney’s Deputy Chief of Staff Jonathan Starkey tweeted June 16 that “Delaware has not set a date on Phase 3 of reopening. Why? Because too many people are not wearing masks, not social distancing, and only thinking about themselves. Governor Carney and the public health team will follow the data closely and move forward when we can do so safely.”

By Peter Osborne


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