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Restaurants take precautions as Phase 2 begins

Restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms to customers this past Friday, June 5, for the first time in several months.

As a part of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s Phase 2 of reopening the state after the pandemic-induced shutdown, restaurants were able to allow indoor dining at 50% capacity.

The day’s lunch patrons were some of the first able to get a taste of the experience.

Peter Charneco was eager to get back into Merk’s Place Friday morning. A regular, he said he found out Thursday night that the restaurant was reopening its dining room starting Friday morning.

He decided to celebrate by treating his neighbor’s two sons to lunch. Friday morning, the trio were excitedly awaiting the hamburger platters they had ordered.

“It was such a relief to finally be able to serve our customers in our dining rooms rather than through car windows,” Merk’s Place Owner Dennis “Merk” Merkle Sr. said. “Our customers were so excited that they were cheering as we unlocked our doors Friday morning for breakfast.”

Over on Main Street, Uptown Coffee Cafe Owner Jason Mattox said the cafe felt a big impact at the height of the shutdown. Uptown was closed for the majority of April to mid-May, when they returned to carry-out only business.

Uptown staff were taking precautionary measures during the reopening, including wearing masks, gloves and utilizing a new plexiglass window at the counter.

Mattox said while the restaurant was allowed to utilize up to 50% of its indoor capacity, employees were still trying to account for six feet of distance between customers, meaning the cafe would likely not reach its 50% limit.

He added Uptown did see a handful of customers Friday morning ready for their first dine-in experience in ages, although some regulars had messaged him stating that while they supported the business, they wouldn’t be back in just yet due to personal health concerns.

“We’ve been doing okay, but we would love to see things, when it’s safe, to return back to normal,” he said. “It’s a process to rebuild.”

North Street Press Club co-owner Jake Romaine said Friday the restaurant had to work hard to anticipate any challenges that may arise during reopening the dining room to the public, including preparing for a change in the amount of produce the business would go through during Phase 2 compared to Phase 1 and accounting for social distancing in seating.

While restaurants like the North Street Press Club were able to offer some outdoor seating options during Phase 1 of reopening, other places in town, such as Pino’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, have no outdoor dining area.

Friday marked the first time in months Pino’s owner Marilena Lentini had been able to let customers sit down and dine in.

“It felt like it would never end,” she said in reference to the shutdown. “And, for me, all this time to look at an empty dining room, it was tough.”

Lentini said although the pandemic was a frightening time, the restaurant was able to get back on its feet thanks to the loyalty of customers who continued to order take out during the shutdown.

In preparation for reopening the indoor dining area, staff at the pizzeria did extensive cleaning. Employees were all wearing masks and every other table displayed a “reserved” sign to implement social distancing and capacity guidelines.

Mike and Kitty Farris, of Appomattox, came to Farmville Friday morning for a day of shopping and errand running. Pino’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, a known favorite of the couple, was the first stop of the trip.

Although Virginia is still under a mask requirement for public indoor spaces, restaurant patrons do not have to wear a mask while eating or drinking. Etiquette regarding masks while eating indoors was a little confusing for some of Friday’s diners.

“I didn’t know what we were supposed to do, but we were prepared,” Kitty said. “We wore our masks in. We’ll leave with our masks … It’s just a thing of getting back into the groove and social distancing, but I’m glad to be here. Not doing take out is nice.”

Tommy Graziano, co-owner of Charley’s Waterfront Cafe in Farmville, said the majority of the business’ employees did not return to work Friday, partially due to temporarily making more money while on unemployment benefits during the shutdown.

“Everybody that’s working right now is also working tonight, tomorrow, tomorrow night, Sunday and Sunday night, and we’ll be closed Monday and Tuesday because I can’t ask them to work seven doubles in a row. It’s hard, you know?”

Graziano said while the move to indoor dining came with its own difficulties, it was a step in a positive direction. The restaurant had been offering outdoor seating during Phase 1, but high temperatures or rain removed that option some days.

He expressed frustrations over Gov. Northam’s handling of the reopening, adding that the announcement of Phase 2 details gave little time for many restaurants to hire additional staff or prepare to reopen. Businesses which were closed for three months had only days to figure out how to open and operate again.

Charley’s is also not able to offer its signature Sunday brunch buffet, and the business has missed many holidays and events that make up for a typical decline in revenue experienced when college students go home for the summer.

Despite setbacks, Graziano said being able to invite customers back indoors and breathe life back into the cafe was exciting.

Glendine and C.W. Williams, from Waynesboro, were in town Friday to shop at Green Front Furniture. They said they always visit Charley’s when they come to Farmville, and made sure to make it a part of their visit Friday.

The couple said they did not feel fearful sitting down inside of restaurants or shopping, although they have made sure to wear masks in public. They were very happy to be sitting down in Charley’s Friday and eating inside a restaurant for a change.