For weeks, Mike DiDomenico had been contemplating how to pandemic-proof his Berwyn restaurant, 30 Main, for the return of dining out.
He installed automatic paper towel and soap dispensers, and foot-operated door openers in the bathrooms. He rigged his ventilation system with disinfecting UV-C coils that help purify the air. He bought private cabana tents for outdoor dining, and drape dividers for tables inside. He loaded his menu onto an app for no-contact ordering.
He also thought about ways to minimize risks to customers and staff.
Four days before Gov. Tom Wolf announced that all Pennsylvania counties would move into the “yellow” recovery phase despite not meeting coronavirus-case benchmarks, DiDomenico posted the measures he planned to take on 30 Main’s Facebook page.
“We want to be ahead of the curve,” he wrote, describing the touchless systems, the three-hour window reserved for seniors, the socially distanced dining spaces, and the protocol for customers eating inside or out.
“When you walk in through a purple UVC-lit entrance, you will be asked to look at the wall to take your temperature” with an infrared thermometer, the post continued. “You will be asked to answer some questions preferably at the time of reservation[:] Did you quarantine for 14 days? Have you left the state? Have you been in contact with anyone that has or had covid 19? Everyone will have to answer or not be permitted. If you are not wearing a mask you will not be permitted.”
The 575-word post — now revised — went on, detailing how 30 Main’s staff would work to keep the restaurant clean and customers safe. It concluded, "With 2 floors and the outside seating we just might be able to seat enough people safely to make it work … We remain optimistic and look forward to seeing everyone soon.“
DiDomenico’s post elicited strong reactions and just under 300 comments. Some commenters were supportive (“Love it!”), some were baffled (“I hope this is a joke”), and some said “no thank you.” But many more were incensed, with a handful likening the precautions to something out of Nazi Germany, a comparison that has been made throughout the pandemic.
“I never expected the kind of the pushback that we got, which is why we took some of that down,” DiDomenico said of the post. He hasn’t adjusted many of the physical safety measures in response (though he has put a sensor on the UV-C light in the entryway so that it turns off when customers enter). He’s still planning to have employees — but not customers — take their temperature before shifts. He also softened on questions his staff asks of those making reservations at 30 Main.
“We’re doing it more casually,” he said. “It’s been somewhat the same. ‘How can we help you, and how can we keep us safe?’ We’re not denying you service if you’ve traveled, but if there’s any information that you would like to share with us so that we can keep our other customers safe, then that’s fine.”
In fact, much of DiDomenico’s plan anticipated the state’s guidelines for reopening restaurants in the yellow phase, which were released on May 27, more than a week after his original post went up. Customers must wear masks whenever they’re not seated. Condiments aren’t allowed to sit out on tables. Menus must be disposable or digital. Everything is socially distanced.
The guidelines recommend restaurants ask employees to self-measure their temperature and assess for COVID-19 symptoms prior to shifts, but give little direction on how restaurants might screen customers.
Other states have been more specific. According to California’s restaurant reopening considerations, “Guests and visitors should be screened for symptoms upon arrival, asked to use hand sanitizer, and to bring and wear a face covering when not eating or drinking.” In Tennessee, temperature checks are a best practice (with anyone reading hotter than 100.4° turned away), but the minimum a restaurant can do is ask customers: “Have you been in close contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 within the past 14 days? Are you experiencing a cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat? Have you had a fever in the last 48 hours?” Montana, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Rhode Island also recommend or require screening customers in some way.
“At the end of the day, we have a business to run, so we’re going to try to keep everyone happy,” DiDomenico said, though he worries about liability. “I couldn’t even imagine what would happen if somebody thought that they got it from our business. I mean, we would have to shut down for two weeks. And that would be it.”
For now, though, he’s just happy to actually reopen. Reservations at the Lancaster Avenue restaurant, known for its live music and special events, were fully booked last Friday night. Around 100 diners were scheduled to eat in 30 Main’s cabanas, set up in the restaurant’s parking lot. An acoustic band was queued up and the staff was ready to go.
The only problem going forward? The weather. “If it rains, it’s going to be a washout, and there’s no way around that.”