Yesterday, Gov. Mike DeWine announced that on June 2, all remaining coronavirus health orders as they apply to bars and restaurants will expire. That means come that Wednesday morning, all requirements regarding social distancing, mask wearing, customer capacity and standing around will be gone and owners and operators will be free to operate their businesses as they see fit.
According to DeWine, "Each Ohio citizen will make their own decision about wearing a mask, social distancing, how to protect themselves and when, for them, those actions are appropriate.”
Predictably, bar owners and operators are approaching this bombshell of a development cautiously. Among those we spoke to, there seems to be a consensus that diners should not expect to see immediate and sweeping changes on that day or soon thereafter.
“We’ve taken things in baby steps the entire way and we’ve been more cautious than a lot of other places,” says Shane Vidovic of Proper Pig in Lakewood. “It was a big transition going from just carry-out to being open again and this will be an even bigger transition. We’re not sure what everybody’s comfort level is because it’s all brand new.”
The big issues that owners now must contend with are whether or not to require employees to continue wearing masks, whether or not to require customers to continue wearing masks while moving around the room, whether to toss the dividers into the bin and whether or not to increase customer capacity.
“As I understand it, it is now up to us to decide,” says Gabe Zeller, owner of Char in Rocky River and Avo in Ohio City. “Our staff will still continue to wear masks for the foreseeable future. It’s not like I can require my staff to get vaccinated, so I don’t know if they are or are not. So for the customers’ comfort and the comfort of [my wife and business partner] Julie and I, we’re going to keep them at least through summer and maybe even winter.”
As for distancing, dividers and capacity, Zeller says that the arrival of patio season takes some of the pressure off with regards to those issues.
“With more patio seating here, I feel like we can keep the bar dividers and distancing,” he adds.
Slow and steady appears to be the watchword at Red Steakhouses downtown and at Pinecrest. Owner Gregg Levy says that being a fine-dining establishment means maintaining a certain level of restraint when it comes to relaxing safety protocols.
“We’re fine dining and we still need to deliver service, so it’s not going to be a wild, wild west free-for-all once everything goes,” he explains. “Lucky for us we have big spaces and have been able to spread out indoors and we intend to keep it that way. Maybe outdoors we can get a little tighter, maybe squeeze in a few more diners in a safe and protected way – maybe five feet spacing instead of six.”
As for those now-familiar plexiglass dividers, Levy says that they will remain behind the bar at the ready for customers who request them.
The most complicated question plaguing owners seems to revolve around mask wearing for customers. While they can continue requiring it of their staff, most say they do not feel comfortable requiring it of their customers. And now that the State no longer requires it, that fall guy is gone.
“It puts pressure on us because if we decide to enforce the mask, we can’t blame it on the governor,” says Levy.
Zeller echoes that sentiment. “It puts us in a bad situation,” he says. “Either we don’t care or we’re a-holes for enforcing rules that aren’t there anymore. I don’t feel like I can force customers to do that. It’s definitely an odd situation to be in. It’s not something I ever thought I’d have to tackle.”
Zeller says that visitors to his and his wife’s establishments will likely see signs that encourage masks for non-vaccinated patrons.
Things grow even more complicated when it comes to live music venues. Sean Watterson says that Happy Dog in Detroit Shoreway, which has been closed since March of 2020, will reopen for business in the coming weeks. And when it does, Happy Dog and other venues like the Grog Shop will be following a reopening checklist put out by the National Independent Venue Association.
Titled "Safe in Sound
," the checklist offers guidance on matters such as mask wearing, social distancing, air circulation and even equipment handling. The suggestions are meant to mitigate as much risk as possible to prevent outbreaks and future shutdowns, says Watterson.
“It’s one thing to have a flare-up in a normal restaurant setting, but because bands are going from club to club, if there’s a flare-up, the live-music industry will be the first one to shut back down,” he says.