The state of Arkansas is slowly working toward bringing its economy back to life after a series of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson gave restaurants the go-ahead to reopen their dining rooms on May 11 with some restrictions in place. However, with a few exceptions, most locally owned restaurants have opted to continue their take-out and delivery operations rather than invite diners back indoors right away. Of those that are looking to serve diners again, a trend has emerged: opening for outdoor dining only.
Several studies have shown that the spread of COVID-19 is far less likely outdoors. Whether it’s because of natural distancing or because the droplets the virus travels on dissipate faster, infectious disease experts largely agree that, all else being equal, being outdoors is safer than indoors in terms of spreading the disease. That’s leading some restaurant owners to take advantage of this year’s mild spring and begin to offer dinner service on porches and patios.
Lost Forty Brewing took things a step further. The company built a brand-new patio for the purpose of restarting dine-in service. The construction started as a shelter for drive-thru employees, but managing owner John Beachboard quickly realized the potential for a new outdoor dining area.
“I think that this is a good first step,” said Beachboard. “For us as Americans to get consumer confidence back, it’s going to take restaurants showing they want to be good stewards to their employees and the community. With gloves and all the cleaning to keep everything sanitary, with distancing and creating this, we’ve spent some resources on this. We think it’s going to be nice.”As many restaurants are doing, Lost Forty is generously spacing its outdoor tables and requiring diners to wear a mask until food or drink is served. The brewery brought its pizza oven out on a full-time basis for take-out orders, and that oven now features prominently in the new patio. The patio is now open during regular business hours.
While the patio at La Terraza Rum and Lounge is well-known and nothing new, the restaurant’s approach to reopening is still innovative. Owner Sarah Bolanos is testing a system where diners drop off their own used dishes at an outdoor cleaning station after the meal is over. Employees wearing masks and gloves serve diners on the patio as normal, and guests take their plates and cups to a kiosk with a dish receptacle submerged in a cleaning solution.
“The servers only bring clean and unused items, and the customer is bringing the used plates to the cleaning station,” said Bolanos. “So it prevents cross-contamination from that aspect, plus we’ve found that it makes people more comfortable. It’s like a picnic that we bring everything to the table and you get to enjoy. It’s definitely a different vibe for us, but I think a lot of people are appreciating getting to have any experience that isn’t their own porch right now.”
La Terraza is still testing its process with friends and family only, and will announce any plans to reopen to the public on its Facebook page. Just down the road, Hill Station is also working to reopen. Daniel Bryant’s new restaurant completely closed over the past month and a half, so he’s still working on getting the business restocked and prepped before welcoming diners again. Patio dining should begin at Hill Station sometime this week. Bryant expressed hope that this new outdoor dining phase will help his business and other businesses start to get back on solid financial ground.
“I think it goes a long way in keeping the business from falling behind,” said Bryant. “We all have vendor relationships that need to be taken care of, we all have rent that needs to be paid. While it may not put you on the path to profitability, it certainly puts you on the path to breaking even, and I think that’s a good thing. You have to start somewhere.”
All business owners we spoke to acknowledged that some people are not ready to go out to eat at this time. Carry-out, drive-thru and delivery will certainly still be featured prominently at Arkansas restaurants for the foreseeable future. However, for those ready to go out again, patio dining looks like the safest and most widely available option. Hopefully, it will also give a much-needed boost to restaurant owners doing their best to stay open.
“I truly believe this is a good first step,” said Beachboard. “This is a part of the process. It’s going to take leadership from business owners to make consumers feel safe again.”