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Downtown restaurants coped with curfew restrictions on top of COVID-19

SALISBURY — For downtown restaurant owners and managers, it’s safe to say that 2020 has not been business as usual the past couple of months.

COVID-19 emerged in mid-March, and recently, a curfew for the downtown area set guidelines for business hours and the movement of people.

How are downtown businesses coping?

“It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be,” said Justin Sides, catering manager at Smokepit.

There was a lot of uncertainty at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, as employers were faced with the shutdown and its effects on their business and their employees as well, said Larissa Harper, the executive director of Downtown Salisbury, Inc. (DSI). Nonetheless, “a lot of our businesses downtown fared better than they thought,” Harper said.

Phase two of Gov. Cooper’s reopening plan began May 22. It’s expected to last until June 26. Under phase two, restaurants can operate dine-in at half capacity.

On Tuesday, Mayor Karen Alexander, meanwhile, rescinded a state of emergency that affected some downtown businesses, too. The curfew, which began June 2, was from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. in the Downtown Municipal Services District.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Smokepit had to transition to take-out orders, Sides said. Even as the dining room as reopened, take-out orders have stayed high, he said.

COVID-19 is probably going to be around for a while, affecting the restaurant and its customers in the process, Sides said.

“We just kind of have to accept and move forward with it,” he said.

Jill Roth, the owner of Shuckin’ Shack Oyster Bar, said that they have included all CDC guidelines at the restaurant, including “social distancing, sanitizing, 50% capacity, touchless temperature readings of staff, face masks of servers, etc.,” Roth said.

“It was fairly easy to implement and our customers have been extremely understanding of the wait time and restrictions on 6 per table, as well as social distancing within and outside of the restaurant,” Roth said.

The biggest difficulty for them has been getting necessary food in a time of shortages.

As the protests occurred in Salisbury in the previous couple of weeks, some business owners came to DSI to get advice on whether they might consider boarding up their windows, Harper said. DSI helped disseminate information from city and police officials to downtown stakeholders, she said.

For Go Burrito owner Mikey Wetzel, “it’s not about the money” as far as recent protests and his business go, he said.

Diversity has always been important to him as a business owner, he said. His staff is diverse and many are young as well. Some of them were nervous about getting home during the curfew after closing up Go Burrito for the day. If the doors closed at 9 p.m., they probably wouldn’t actually be headed home until closer to 9:30 p.m., after the curfew hours.

“We closed an hour early out of respect for the employees,” he said. “We just roll with the punches.”

Go Burrito also has been allowing customers to put sticky notes on the front windows. “Come put your own personal note on our window to show your support as we call for justice and change,” a caption for a photo of the notes Facebook page reads.

“We’re happy to put our support behind it,” Wetzel said of the protests.

During the curfew, Smokepit was closing early at 7 p.m. since it takes almost two hours to clean up after closing to customers, Sides said. That way, their employees could get out safety at 8:30 p.m.

“We were able to dodge any huge obstacles,” he said. “We were happy with the outcome for us.”

As far as the curfew goes, Roth also said that it was manageable. Shuckin’ Shack was already closing earlier to deal with food shortages and limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Harper thinks that downtown will surely bounce back from the curfew and COVID-19 overlapping. Many business-owners have used the time of transition and change during the shutdown and since to learn new skills, such as selling or marketing their products online, she said.

When the pandemic started, a lot of business owners also helped each other out, such as mentoring one another on how to fill out the small business loan application, Roth said.

“From negative circumstances, positive things can happen,” she said.

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