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Group advising state on SC restaurant reopening will add guest cap to suggested guidelines

Bar at Hamptons

The owners of Hamptons in Sumter are planning to remove some of these seats when they're allowed to reopen the restaurant. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association is revising its recommendations for reopening restaurants to include a clause restricting the number of dine-in guests at any one time to some fraction of the building’s permitted occupancy.

SCRLA chair Bobby Williams, Jr., who on Wednesday presented the trade association’s document to Gov. Henry McMaster, said he’s asked the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to propose a percentage.

Of 11 other states which have thus far established reopening dates for restaurant dining rooms, all but Missouri and Oklahoma have issued rules capping guest counts. In most cases, the capacity is set at a percentage of normal occupancy, ranging from 25 to 50 percent, but Georgia instead required restaurants to limit the number of diners to 10 per 500 square feet.

Williams says the committee responsible for coming up with recommendations for South Carolina initially was “trying to stay away from any percentage” because of confusion over whether the service area and kitchen, along with the people working in them, should figure into calculations.

The rules for reopening, state-by-state

State Georgia Tennessee Alaska Iowa North Dakota Oklahoma Texas Missouri Montana Nebraska Arkansas
Date April 27 April 27 May 1 May 1 May 1 May 1 May 1 May 4 May 4 May 4 May 11
Party size 6 people 6 people Household groups only 6 people 10 people 6 people 6 people 10 people 6 people 6 people 10 people
Capacity 10 per 500 square feet 50 percent 25 percent 50 percent 50 percent N/A 25 percent (50 percent in rural counties with fewer than five cases.) N/A 50 percent 50 percent 33 percent
Table distance At least 6 feet At least 6 feet 10 feet (indoors and outdoors) At least 6 feet At least 6 feet At least 6 feet At least 6 feet At least 6 feet At least 6 feet At least 6 feet 10 feet
Bar seating N/A Closed N/A Closed Standing not allowed. 1-2 stools at 6-feet separation. 6-foot distance Closed N/A Closed Closed Closed
Waiting area Prohibited Must be marked Reservations only Reservation only / Walking lanes Must be marked 6-foot distance At least 6 feet N/A N/A "Facilitate and designate." N/A

“Some places have gone percentages, but we just thought six-foot distance or every other table seemed to work,” he said.

Every other state with a reopening plan in place has dictated that tables must be spaced at least six feet apart, with 10 feet of separation mandated in Alaska and Arkansas. SCRLA’s guidelines are somewhat less stringent, suggesting restaurateurs “space tables, if possible, at least six feet apart. If not possible, seat tables in rotation, or block seats. Utilize outdoor seating if possible.”

An SCRLA spokeswoman didn't respond when asked why the organization didn't insist on a certain distance.

While the state isn’t obliged to enact the SCRLA’s guidelines as drafted, hospitality associations have had a significant say in the final wording of advisories in other states.

Many of them, including the SCRLA, have worked off a National Restaurant Association publication titled “COVID-19 Reopening Guidance: A Guide for the Restaurant Industry,” which is divided into sections on food safety, cleaning and sanitizing, employee health monitoring and social distance.

Among the social distancing measures endorsed by the national organization, in addition to “ensur(ing) at least six feet of separation between table setups,” are a reservations-only policy and party sizes which don’t exceed maximums set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On March 15, the CDC advised against more than 50 people gathering, although it clarified the recommendation didn’t apply to businesses where the same people came into contact day after day.

In a similar vein, Alaska is only allowing household groups to dine out together; other states have set party sizes at 6 people or 10 people. SCRLA is proposing no more than 8 people be permitted to sit at the same table.

But the SCRLA document is silent on bar seating, which is prohibited in six of the states where restaurants have been given a reopening date. Greg Thompson, a member of the COVID-19 recovery task force and owner of restaurants in Sumter, says there wasn’t any serious consideration given to taking bars offline.

“God, we need a drink more than ever,” he says.

Still, Thompson’s wife and co-owner, Danielle Thompson, is planning to remove bar seats at Hamptons and post signs explaining the adjustment will help keep customers safe. Thompson believes the responsibility for reducing risk at restaurants ultimately lies with their owners.

“If they want to have the right to run a business, they need to be responsible,” Thompson says. “The customer base will expect restaurants to do what’s right.”

In fact, both Thompson and Williams are counting on customer vigilance as an enforcement strategy.

“This is going to be self-policing,” Williams says of the guidelines. “And not only that; the way social media is, they going to get called out within seconds if they’re not doing the right thing. It’s going to be all over the internet.”

After SCRLA shared its recommendations at Wednesday’s meeting, McMaster pledged “to (make) some decisions soon” on a timeline for restaurant reopening.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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