'I am so thankful': Delaware business owners react to loosening restrictions

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Memorial Day weekend is when Clayton Theatre owner Joanne Howe plans to open the iconic Dagsboro business, since closing in November due to COVID-19 challenges.

Her opening excitement was boosted by word Tuesday from Gov. John Carney and Delaware’s Division of Public Health that effective May 21, all capacity restrictions inside restaurants, retail, other businesses and houses of worship will be lifted, while still under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

“Perfect. I’m happy to hear that,” said Ms. Howe. “So, this works into our plan wonderfully.”

While masks will still be required indoors to prevent spread of COVID-19, social distancing requirements will move from 6 feet to 3 feet. Facilities will be able to use as much capacity as social distancing requirements will allow.

At the Clayton Theatre, plans are to employ ongoing sanitizing and perhaps not immediately take full use of the impending increase in allotted capacity.

“We’re going to still continue to wipe things down and be very cautious with our customers. We want people to still feel comfortable coming indoors in a strange environment with different people that they might not have spent some time with,” Ms. Howe said.

“But I think people are really starting to feel more comfortable now that the vaccines are out there, and people are getting them. I know there are some that aren’t. I’m talking to more and more people that are changing their mind and they think they are going to get one. So that’s good news.”

At full capacity, the Clayton can seat 370. For the reopening, Ms. Howe had initially planned on patron seating in every other row, with three seats between customers.

At 6-foot capacity Ms. Howe was figuring they could accommodate 100 people comfortably.

“So, I’m going to say we could probably do 150 now and people would feel comfortable. And honestly, just because of people getting back into the swing of things, I don’t really anticipate us doing much more than that at this point. But we’ll have to see,” Ms. Howe said.

Senior centers

CHEER Inc., which aims to meet the needs of citizens 50 and over, welcomed the news.

“It will have a major impact,” said CHEER CEO Ken Bock.

“The big thing is up until now and through now, we have been required to maintain that 6-foot social distancing, which has been a major restriction in terms of the numbers of people that can be in our centers. Now that that is being reduced from 6 foot to 3 foot, that basically allows us to double the number of people we have been allowing,” he said.

“It does not allow us to go fully open, not quite at 100 percent but it’s close. I haven’t done the math, but it is a significant improvement in terms of our ability to bring people in and serve.”

In Dover, Carolyn Fredricks, executive director of the Modern Maturity Center, shared a similar sentiment.

“When we heard that, we were doing the happy dance,” she said.

“It will affect us greatly. I am so thankful. We can get our people back in here. We can get our people back in our Daybreak Program, so we just want to get them back in here.”

Ms. Fredricks said the center has been operating at 50% capacity.

“Facilities will be able to use as much capacity as social distancing requirements will allow,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Ms. Fredricks said the center has a “huge area” for people to use, so the 3-feet distancing allows all programming to be offered again. She said masks will still be required inside and there will be temperature checks upon entry.

She said for some smaller areas of the center, staff may ask to see people’s vaccination cards. Those decisions are still pending.

“We’re just anxious to get people back in here,” Ms. Fredricks said. “They want to come in and shoot pool. They don’t want the reduced hours. Life is going to get back to normal.”

Impact on restaurants

SoDel Concepts President Scott Kammerer called it a compromise “where the governor’s office feels that is a restriction that they are going to keep in place. “

“We’ll work around it,” he said. “The restaurants will adhere to that and they’ll make do with those restrictions in light of the fact that the general public is really comfortable right now.”

SoDel Concepts, with 14 restaurants/establishments and other businesses based along the coast, is expecting a huge business in the upcoming months.

“We feel this summer is going to be one of the busiest summers we’ve ever experienced. This spring has been so incredibly busy here at the beach. People are ready to come out,” said Mr. Kammerer. “Our general feeling is that it’s a good indication that restaurants have been operating safely for the 14 months of the pandemic, and we’re very happy to see the loosening of the restrictions to 100 percent capacity as an indication that restaurants are safe and definitely have been following the rules and doing the right thing.”

Stephanie Ferenci, bar manager at the Crooked Hammock’s Middletown location, said the restaurant’s outdoor structure — where about 80% of the seating is outside, she said — has helped staff navigate pandemic-related restrictions.

“The majority of our business is outdoors, so the restrictions aren’t as strict out there,” Ms. Ferenci, said. “We’ve been able to seat people together outdoors more often and it hasn’t been as much of an issue.”

With more people likely coming to the Crooked Hammock after the restrictions are lifted, Ms. Ferenci said she is expecting to have to remind customers to wear their masks where necessary.

“I have a feeling it will be a lot of the same conversations we’ll be having,” Ms. Ferenci said.

Kenny Ellis, the store manager at Roma Pizza in north Dover, said while he is still waiting for more details to come in about the announcement, he expects business will increase once the dining room is able to further open.

He said Roma Pizza has only been able to offer seating at two of its 14 tables within the current restrictions. Given the size and layout of the dining area, Mr. Ellis said the restaurant will be able to offer seating at a few more tables, but not open to its full capacity.

Mr. Ellis said Roma Pizza has seen an increase in customers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — in the form of delivery and curbside pickup.

“Our delivery has just increased tenfold, so we’re doing better now than we’ve probably done in years,” Ellis said.

Staffing concerns

Carlos Estrada, owner of La Hacienda Mexican restaurants in Dover and Milford, welcomed the news but offered a discouraging note.

“It’s definitely really challenging to be at 30 or 50%. So full capacity is great. The only problem with that is that a lot of restaurants right now are having a big challenge trying to get people to come in and work,” he said.

“Let’s say if they said today at noon, they’re going full capacity, it would put a really big strain on those restaurants that don’t have the staff to support that and that makes it challenging for the restaurant owner or the manager that is working those shifts and it takes two to three weeks to kind of semi train somebody from zero.”

He said the reason restaurants like his are experiencing the staffing shortages is the up to $800 weekly unemployment benefit that some workers are receiving.

“If people are still getting that assistance for staying home and not working, it makes, at least for me, a little challenging. Even for Cinco de Mayo, we usually have a big party. And I couldn’t do that right now even if they said you can go to 100 percent because the staffing issue would definitely put a hindrance on that,” Mr. Estrada said.

“People want to go out and they want to have a good time and if they all come out at the same time, it definitely puts a strain on the restaurant.”

Mr. Estrada said while fixing up a new location in Milford, he gave employees there an option to work at the Dover restaurant.

“But a lot of them opted not to work anymore because of the $800 that they’re getting. So, now that I say ‘Hey you want to come back?’ they say, ‘I’m just going to stay home until this is over.’ I understand. Why would you want to work if you’re getting money for free?” he said.

Hospitality

Mary Susan Jones, general manager of the Georgetown Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham, said lifting restrictions will allow a return to more normalcy in the lobby, dining area and other common areas.

“We reduced the seating of our indoor capacity like probably from 100 percent to maybe down to 2 percent. We’re in such a compact area. There was no way for us to do exactly what they would want us to do – to be effective with our distancing. We took out seating tables, stools,” said Ms. Jones.

“As of May 21, we’ll start putting things back. We’ll just make sure we are aware of what is going on. We’re excited. It’s all positive,” Ms. Jones said. “We’re still going to obviously mandate masks so that we can be careful and keep everybody happy and healthy, because that’s my goal.”

Features editor Craig Horleman contributed to the story.