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FOOD

Lessons Columbia restaurants might learn from abroad during COVID-19

Global Problem

  • Updated
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Five Points’ Publico resumed dine-in operations for two days last week before shutting them down again.

Since the beginning of COVID-19’s emergence on a global level, there have been endless diagrams from scientists and discussions between chefs and producers about what needs to happen moving forward, and what the future of dining will be.

The instability of data has only made things more difficult, as restaurants have no sense of when things may stabilize. Will business be disrupted for the next six months or the next several years?

As of Free Times‘ May 11 press deadline, the most recent COVID-19 forecast from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention essentially provided no assurances, indicating that “some states may have limited additional deaths in the coming weeks, while substantial increases may occur in others.”

As the U.S. grapples with how to move forward, countries like Taiwan and South Korea have not only flattened the curve when it comes to new coronavirus cases, but either reopened or kept their economies open.

Marc Moskowitz, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of South Carolina, explains that prior experiences with viruses and diseases like SARS and H1NI have helped these countries not only develop quick responses to help mitigate spread, but also create a culture of buying into prevention measures.

“The three biggest points,” Moskowitz says of Taiwan’s reaction to COVID-19, “that differ from the U.S. are: A. Masks, masks, masks — everyone wears them, which is exponentially more effective than if only half the people wear them; B. they have done an amazing job at tracking down friends of friends of friends who get COVID-19 so they know exactly who has it and who doesn’t, which makes everybody else feel more comfortable going out; and C. because they switched to single-payer health care a couple of decades ago, people are not afraid that going to the doctor will bankrupt them, so if they do start having symptoms they immediately go to the doctor and the government usually finds out about it very quickly.”

Taiwan has implemented several different strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Schools, for instance, have provided children personal barriers to eat their lunches at desks. Some food courts, a staple of Taiwan’s dining culture, have also incorporated these to help individuals eat lunch apart from others with their masks off. Businesses conduct regular temperature checks, and most public spaces offer hand sanitizer dispensers.

“Restaurants have had far less effects from COVID than many other places because of the way the disease was quickly contained,” says Jordan Redmond about South Korea. Redmond is a food and drink writer from South Carolina who has been living in the South Korea’s capital of Seoul, for the past seven years. He documents many of his experiences at seoulfoodblog.com.

Redmond says increased hand sanitizer accessibility and ramped-up production of soju, a popular alcohol in Seoul often also used to clean tables, has helped provide restaurants with consistent cleaning supplies to remain open. He also notes that food delivery has also been trendy, with Seoul being so densely rich with options in every area — elsewhere around the globe, health concerns and high costs to access these services have been major concerns for restaurants.

Korea has also encouraged that dining out be a quicker, in-and-out process while safety remains a concern.

“There have been no forced closures,” Redmond offers. “However, business has been down somewhat for some places due to folks following social distancing guidelines or who are just worried about what’s going on.”

Food tourism is a major economic driver in Korea and Taiwan. Redmond expects wide economic impacts to most parts of Seoul that depend on it as long as COVID-19 continues to exist and cause fear among consumers.

With restrictions on dining at South Carolina restaurants, which had been disallowed entirely until May 4, now completely eased by Gov. Henry McMaster (though operating at 50 percent capacity is still recommended in the state), Columbia restaurants are left to make their own decisions about what works for their customers and their business.

Sean Moore, owner of Forest Acres’ BLD Diner, indicates that it’s been difficult to figure out what the best practice is for reopening. Moore shut down BLD on March 22.

“The obvious parties like the CDC, [SC]DHEC, National Restaurant Association along with South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association have all put out guidelines, but I really think more needs to be done,’ Moore contends via email. “The fact that SC has not experienced 14 days of decline, yet we are suddenly opening up various businesses doesn’t make sense.”

Kevin Varner, owner of Columbia brewery Hunter-Gatherer’s two locations, says he’s also taking the time to strategize what reopening will look like.

“I am trying to look longer-term than the next two months. My worry is that we’ll be at 50 percent revenue for the next two years” says Varner.

Hunter-Gatherer has installed hand sanitizer stations at both locations, foot pulls on all the doors, and are considering other measures. Ultimately though, Varner is looking for assurances from the state, beyond permission to reopen, that it is safe to operate.

Five Points bar and restaurant Publico resumed dine-in service for two days last week. Co-owner Michael Duganier says it was a bumpy experience.

“There’s not a single business owner that could say, ‘OK, five years ago during our last pandemic, this is how we’ll open.” No one has any experience on any of this,” he offers.

Publico’s first day of outdoor dining involved having customers order through a to-go window and then eat on the patio, Duganier details. However that created a line and prompted the business to close early to formulate a better plan.

On day two, they used a reservation-style system to quash the line and, instead, called walk-in customers when a table was available.

Duganier co-owns another Publico in Atlanta, where he says it’s different and riskier. The business has remained closed there. While he was excited to give Columbia’s location a test run, he admits that it’s a tough decision — pointing to uncertainty over safety and customers’ wants — for any owner to make considering the circumstances.

“I think the biggest message that needs to be said is that this is new to everyone. It’s not that people are disobeying and doing the same thing,” he posits. “Everyone is really trying their best and do right by each other.”

BLD’s Moore indicates that his biggest concern is general safety when it comes to reopening.

“I want to be sure we are not opening too quickly and miss a step or, as I have preached from the beginning, act consciously to be a part of the solution and not adding to the problem.”

He currently hopes to implement a slower reopening plan for BLD, starting with carryout and delivery and working steadily back to a full reopening if data supports it. Safety measures he plans to implement include scheduling a staff member to clean throughout the shift (sanitizing door handles, sink handles and touchscreens, and cleaning bathrooms after each use, etc.), as well as monitoring staff travel, taking temperatures daily and maintaining a large-than-normal inventory of soap and hand sanitizer. He adds that he’s sure this list will grow once they get going.

“Long-term considerations must include staff along with guests,” he suggests. “I cannot put my staff in harm’s way just as I cannot put all of our great guests and their families in harm’s way.”

David Clarey contributed to this article.

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