RESTAURANTS

Restaurants in 77 Iowa counties can reopen, but will they?

Owners are split on whether that's a good idea yet

Herb 'N Lou's Pizza in West Branch. (Google Street View image)
Herb ‘N Lou’s Pizza in West Branch. (Google Street View image)

Some of the restaurant owners in the swath of Iowa where restrictions will ease Friday are split on whether it’s a good idea to reopen even under social distancing rules ordered for them and their customers.

“I just, personally, don’t feel it’s safe for our employees or customers yet,” said Teri Hazelwood, owner of Herb ‘N Lou’s Pizza in West Branch in Cedar County. “Financially, it would be great. Ethically, I couldn’t do it.”

She said even if confirmed cases of coronavirus have been low locally, she worries about visitors from neighboring counties with higher case loads.

“I think people from surrounding counties that are still closed are going to come to Cedar County when they want a night out,” she said.

Cedar County had reported only 28 known cases of the virus by Monday, But just to the west, Johnson County reported 437 cases and six COVID-19 deaths.

In Decorah, in Winneshiek County, Rubaiyat owners Andy and Kim Bonnet said they had been in conversation with other local restaurant owners and a large group collectively decided not to reopen yet.

“I still don’t feel comfortable with Fayette and Allamakee counties surrounding us. I just think it’s in the best interest of health, of ourselves and our community and our employees, that we stay closed,” Andy Bonnet said.

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Winneshiek County has reported only 24 cases. But just due east, Allamakee County has reported 72 cases and three COVID-19 deaths.

Amber Petersen, general manager of the General Store Pub in Anamosa, in Jones County, on the other hand, said she is excited to reopen.

“Our staff wants to get back to work. It’s our busy time of year, and we’re ready to open back up. We’re not worried,” she said. “We’re looking forward to seeing everybody’s faces again.”

Jones County shares borders with three counties that have reported few known cases, including five in Jackson County and four in Delaware County. But it also shares a border with the hot spot of Linn County, which has reported 613 cases and 34 deaths.

To meet the social distancing requirements, which say restaurants must operate at no more than 50 percent of capacity and seat parties at least 6 feet apart, Petersen said the restaurant would use only half its tables and would remove bar stools. Staff also will wear protective gear, and she has hired an extra person to sanitize the bathrooms every 30 minutes.

The counties excluded from the order allowing the limited reopenings are Allamakee, Benton, Black Hawk, Bremer, Dallas, Des Moines, Dubuque, Fayette, Henry, Iowa, Jasper, Johnson, Linn, Louisa, Marshall, Muscatine, Polk, Poweshiek, Scott, Tama, Washington and Woodbury counties.

Some restaurant owners allowed to reopen said they weren’t sure yet how to respond.

John Danneman, former owner of McOtto’s Family Restaurant in Anamosa, was at the restaurant Monday helping out — he calls himself a mentor for the business. He said managers were still deciding what to do and were consulting with the Jones County Public Health Department.

“We’re still digesting all the rules and regulations. We want to abide by all the rules, and we don’t want to in anyway harm any customer or our employees,” he said. “We’re only going to do it if we do it right.”

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In addition to the capacity limits and rules about seating people, the new rules say restaurants should not seat groups larger than six people and that self-service, such as a buffet or salad bar, is prohibited.

The order excludes bars, defined as places where “the serving of food in incidental to the consumption of those beverages and is limited to the service of ice, snack foods and the reheating of commercially prepared foods such as frozen pizza, prepackaged sandwiches, or other prepackaged, ready-to-serve products.”

Bars must still remain closed across the state.

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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