In a foodie and fun-loving city like New Orleans, the
closure of our restaurants and bars has been a very hard hit. We miss our
brunches, our martini lunches, our oyster Happy Hours. All the service industry
workers surely miss their jobs. And although select local restaurants have
still been cooking up our favorites this whole time for curbside pickup and
delivery, it's just not the same as a sit-down meal with fine service and a
cocktail fresh from the bar. Takeout simply can't take the place of a meal out.
Those restaurants that have remained open to offer us
food to go have managed to bring in some revenue, but places everywhere are
still struggling to stay afloat among the decreased business—to say nothing of
the lack of tourist and convention dollars that most local restaurants rely
And now, as restaurants are finally gearing up to
reopen their dining rooms, there are still plenty of things to consider: What
does that look like now? How can restaurant workers and guests stay safe? And
are people really ready to sit in a restaurant and eat, side by side, again?
Anna Tusa and her husband AJ, owners of local
We asked her how she is working the "new normal" of
eating out and how she will soon transition this over to her New Orleans
eateries as well.
"Even though Florida doesn't require masks for employees,
we follow the CDC guidelines, and everyone on our staff wears mask and gloves,"
she says. "We properly sanitized the restaurant while closed, have policies in
place for social distancing, cleanliness between uses, etc."
As per city and state government law, she has already
put other safety precautions into place as well, including single-use paper
menus, "no-touch" menus with QR codes, and lower seating capacity. To limit
contact among people, there will be no table service for the time being. Counter-service
style, customers will order, pick up, and take their own food to the table themselves.
Want another cocktail? You'll need to walk up to the bar and order another one,
because "no one's going to bring anything to you at the table," Tusa explains.
In addition, she tracks all employees in a log, checking in with them
consistently—complete with temperature checks—to see if they have been exposed
to the virus or are exhibiting any symptoms.
Tusa also plans to put into effect a program that she
refers to as "customer education," where restaurant guests will need to be
schooled on the number of people who can sit at any one table and social
distancing protocols. Every customer will also need to leave both their egos
and their personal details at the door, including name, address, and telephone
numbers, for coronavirus "contact tracing." And remember those old-school signs
that used to be posted in restaurants everywhere: "No shirt, no shoes, no
service"? Well, the 2020 version will read, more or less: "Experiencing
symptoms of COVID-19? You can't come in. Recovering from COVID-19? Sorry, please come again later." It's the sad reality of the coronavirus age.
Since the Monday reopening of their Sandestin
restaurants, Tusa has already seen some encouraging signs. People have been turning
up to take advantage of their dockside dining, and their takeout orders there
have increased significantly. Even though up to 25 percent seating capacity is
allowed indoors in Florida restaurants, people are opting instead to eat
outdoors. But either way, they're coming out and eating out.
As for how this will all occur in New Orleans, Tusa
says that she is still waiting for official guidelines to be announced for "Phase
1" of the restaurant reopenings here. Everything is still in flux and very uncertain.
"We can't really make a long-term plan," Tusa says, "because everything is so fluid,
and everything changes."
Though the tentative permitted reopening date still
stands at May 15, this has not yet been confirmed. The city is holding off
until they receive updated data on current coronavirus stats from the CDC.
Whether or not our curve is now flat enough to flat-out open our restaurants
remains to be seen. In fact, while the state of Louisiana okayed restaurants to
offer outdoor onsite seating as of last weekend, the city of New Orleans
overrode that, saying no-go for within Orleans Parish. Jefferson Parish diners,
on the other hand, could be seen enjoying gumbo or shrimp and grits alfresco.
Though Tusa recognizes that getting people in the doors
and making them feel comfortable and safe doing so is an ongoing challenge, she
is optimistic that folks want to dine out again and will come back to her
restaurants. "Our location in the French Quarter has a beautiful courtyard; our
locations in Sandestin are on the Bay. And I think folks are ready to come out,"
she says. "I'm sure it might start out slow, but we will adjust our staffing
accordingly and work on new ways to attract business: specials, themed nights,
On the other hand, Tusa admits that she has some concerns
for her New Orleans locations, which get the bulk of their business from foot
traffic from tourists and convention-goers out on the town. Their famous chargrilled
oysters or impressive cocktail list might bring in the locals, but it's not
enough to counteract the slump in tourism to her French Quarter and Warehouse
District spots. "I'm sure that we'll have some of our loyal customers who will
come and support," she says. "But they're not going to support us seven days a
Tusa adds that they might need to resort to reduced
opening hours or events such as Wine-Down Wednesdays as a potential draw, but
she is also hopeful to get a good bit of business from regional tourists and
locals on staycations. "We're going to have to get creative to generate a
customer base," she says. For now, she confesses that she is keeping her
expectations low and will be happy just to pay the bills and break even.
Having her establishments shut down for so long has, naturally,
not been easy on Tusa as a restaurant owner. She has seen the business suffer
and has had to simply stay the course and wait it out. When not working toward an
eagerly awaited reopening—which is now a reality in Florida and soon to become
one in New Orleans—she has kept herself busy the past couple months with gardening,
walking and biking, cleaning, and cooking. "I have a green thumb," she jokes. "My
husband and I can pressure wash anything."
Throughout the closures, Tusa has also made a point of
keeping up her connections with her restaurant customers via social media, sharing
both new recipes and a little blind faith for the future. But she is certainly
ready to get back to work fulltime. "We have been closed in NOLA since March 17;
we have zero income, but we still have expenses," she says. "We have kept our
management team on—they are working on projects to make an enhanced dining
experience when we reopen—but all hourly staff was furloughed. We have to
restart the economy."
And, of course, the timing couldn't be worse. New
Orleans restaurants were closed during prime festival season, when they do the most
business, and are reopening just in time for the slow summer stretch. Other challenges
and concerns could come up, such as the possibility of losing staffers who opt
instead to keep collecting their stimulus-boosted unemployment payments, and
there's always that fear of being sued by someone who claims to have contracted
the virus in one of her restaurants. Tusa doesn't anticipate seeing any real
semblance of normalcy until as early as September. But she's taking it all in
"We don't have a textbook that says, 'after coronavirus,
this is what we do, and this is what's going to happen,'" she says. "We'll take
it one day at a time, and just try to make the best of it."
Tusa continues to remain positive and do her part to keep
her staff and customers safe and to get her restaurants—and New Orleans itself—back
on track again.
"We will come back from this. We came back from Katrina
and the BP oil spill," she adds. "We'll adapt and change and survive. It's
going to be a long road, but it will happen."
The Rules for Reopening
The reopenings in Louisiana are taking place in phases. Phase 1
involves primarily restaurants,
cafés, and coffee shops, while most other "non-essential" businesses,
from massage parlors to tattoo parlors, will remain closed. Unfortunately, this
also means that we won't be taking shots six feet down the bar from our friends
at the local watering hole anytime soon, as drinking establishments (unless they
serve food) will remain closed—until Phase 3, which is an undetermined distance
down the road from now. In order to progress to the next phase, all guidelines
must be successfully met and without any major spikes in COVID cases. If we
relapse, we reclose.
During Phase 1, if you are heading to your favorite
restaurant for an eat-in meal, the powers that be advise that you leave Grandpa
and Great Aunt Esther at home and kindly bring them back your leftovers instead.
Anyone considered high-risk for contracting COVID is still advised to stay
As places gradually begin the reopening process, the
city and state governments are keeping close watch, and they mean business. They are not messing around or taking
this lightly. The list of guidelines and restrictions for reopening is lengthy
and rigorous. Here are some of the main requirements restaurants must meet in order
to be permitted to reopen. Please note that as this situation is in a constant
state of flux, some of this information may change.
- 25 percent max capacity.
- Tables must be separated anywhere from 6
to 10 feet apart.
- No table service.
- No buffets.
- No guests lining up inside. Customers must
wait outside, while maintaining appropriate social distancing.
- Staff must likewise remain at least six
feet apart—from other employees as well as from guests—in all working spaces, including
- Obligatory "Crowd Managers" will be assigned
to police any social distancing and capacity breaches. Will also be in charge
of enforcing seating arrangements, all the while staying six feet away from
- Staff will be regularly screened for
COVID-19 symptoms and will not be allowed to work if any are present.
- Staff must wash hands often and always wear
gloves, which much be changed after each customer, and employees are forbidden
to touch customers' hands.
- Clean, clean, clean—using soap and water
and a disinfectant and/or bleach (do not drink).