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Restaurants hungry to reopen for diners

Family meetings will be a little more normal next week for Thomas Jones.

Jones owns the Circle II restaurant in Elizabeth City, and like other restaurant owners-operators across North Carolina, has been barred from serving dine-in customers since March 17.

That ends today starting at 5 p.m.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Wednesday he plans to lift the ban on dine-in service at restaurants during Phase Two of his plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions in the state. Restaurants, which have been limited to delivery and takeout services, may reopen to dine-in customers provided they operate at 50 percent capacity and follow other rules.

Jones, who plans to reopen the Circle II next week, calls his customers family. He notes many have continued to patronize his restaurant through takeout service over the past two months.

Jones said he’s excited that he can again greet customers, or family, inside the restaurant instead of handing off takeout orders.

Circle II, which is located on Halstead Boulevard, will be able to accommodate around 45 customers under Cooper’s Phase Two guidelines for restaurants. The restaurant is taking a few days to prepare for reopening in order to get the necessary staff in place and to educate employees on guidelines set by the state. The restaurant remains open for takeout.

“A lot of my regular customers have been regulars for takeout through the whole shutdown,” Jones said. “A lot of them have told me that they will be very glad when they can come back in and sit down and eat even with the restrictions. I think a lot of people want to come out and be social. Our customers are family and I have been extremely blessed because my customers have been extremely loyal.”

The Villa Restaurant, located on Halstead Boulevard, plans to reopen for dine-in breakfast customers Saturday at 7 a.m. Michael Rallis, son of restaurant owner Savvas Rallis, said the restaurant can seat 121 customers under the reopening guidelines.

“We are excited to see our customers again,” Michael Rallis said. “We just don’t serve food, this is more of a social gathering place. Being able to have our relationships back with our customers and to see them and see how they are is important to us.”

In addition to capacity limitations, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines state that restaurants reopening during Phase Two will be required to keep customers seated at least six feet apart for both indoor and outdoor dining. Restaurants must also post signs reminding patrons of social distancing and install spacing lines in high-traffic areas such as cash registers.

DHHS is also requiring restaurants to routinely clean and disinfect high-touch areas.

The state is not requiring patrons or restaurant employees to wear masks but instead is “highly recommending” it. DHHS is also asking that restaurants allow no more than six people at a table, unless they are a family from the same household.

Restaurants are also being encouraged to provide hand sanitizer for employees and customers, use disposable menus and disposable condiment packs, or only provide condiments on request.

Jones will recommend that his employees wear masks but he won’t require them to do so. He also said the restaurant will be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis as required by the state rules.

Rallis is providing masks to employees and encouraging their use but they won’t be required. The Villa also plans to use its regular menus but they will be sanitized after every use. Tables will also be sanitized after each use, Rallis said.

“As soon as the tables are cleared (of dishes), we will sanitize them according to the requirements,” Rallis said.

Jones does expect to make one big change at the Circle II. When the restaurant reopens it won’t feature its regular buffet.

The state is allowing restaurants to offer a buffet option, but it comes with several restrictions including a requirement that employees serve customers and customers practice social distancing when in line.

Jones is concerned that customers may be wary of buffets, so he believes he can better use the space to seat more customers.

“There may be people that may not want to go to a buffet,” Jones said. “We may try something different when we are allowed to fully open.”

The Villa plans to offer its full menu when it reopens Saturday but Rallis said that could change if the restaurant’s distributors have trouble getting certain products.

“We have had some problems because of the meat plants closing,” Rallis said. “It all depends on what our suppliers can get. With the whole state reopening, it will be more than just us. I can’t predict what will happen because I can’t answer for them (suppliers).”

While restaurants can reopen under Phase Two of the COVID-19 restriction-easing plan, bars and breweries cannot.

Ghost Harbor Brewing owners Thomas and Tabitha Reese said they were “shocked” when they found out that craft breweries would not be able to open at 50-percent capacity starting today.

What’s surprising, they said, is that craft beer breweries were listed as an “essential” business when Cooper issued his stay-at-home order on March 30. That’s because craft breweries were classified by the order as “food producers.”

Under the order, Ghost Harbor was allowed to remain open for takeout orders only.

Thomas Reese said the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild was under the impression that breweries would be able to open under the same restrictions as restaurants in Phase Two of Cooper’s reopening plans.

Reese said he is optimistic that Cooper will reverse course and allow breweries to reopen. That, he said, could come at any time.

“It was a major setback that we did not see coming,” he said. “We are currently in a holding pattern.”

If Ghost Harbor is allowed to reopen, the brewery will be able to accommodate 24 customers inside and seat others outside at several tables on its patio that are already six feet apart. Customers can also drink their beer out in Palin’s Alley.

Ghost Harbor is open for takeout beer only from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. during the stay-at-home order, and that continues. If it can reopen in Phase Two, Reese said the brewery will be limited to takeout only from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. with the tasting room opening to customers at 5 p.m. and closing at 10 p.m.

“That way if a person is not quite comfortable getting out in crowds yet, they will have a couple of hours to drop in and buy beer,” Reese said.

Ghost Harbor employees will not be required to wear masks as the bar separates employees and customers during the ordering process, Reese said.

Coaster’s Downtown Draught House owner Debbie Swayne also was disappointed by Cooper’s Phase Two plan.

The North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association sent out an email Tuesday saying that under Cooper’s reopening plan “restaurants and bars” would be allowed to open at 50-percent capacity.

Cooper, however, said bars cannot open in Phase Two and Coaster’s, which does serve food, is considered a bar under state laws because food sales are just a small part of its overall revenue.

When interviewed Wednesday, Swayne was unsure if she would reopen on Friday. But she said on Thursday that the governor “made that decision for me.”

The earliest Coaster’s can open, unless Cooper reverses course, is June 26, which is when Phase Three of his easing of restrictions is expected to begin.

“We will figure it out, and we will take this as an opportunity to get more stuff done at the bar,” Swayne said. “Everything will work out.”

City to consider allowing restaurants to expand outdoor seating

City Council will consider a proposal next week that could close a small portion of Colonial Avenue during specified hours to allow downtown restaurants to expand outdoor dining options.

The proposal could also allow restaurants in other parts of the city to expand outdoor seating options in their parking lot or other areas where feasible.

If approved by council, the eastern part of Colonial Avenue near Palin’s Alley would be closed during certain hours.

Outside seating would be set up to allow people to purchase and consume food, and possibly beer and wine. The tables would be separated to conform with social distancing regulations. Hard liquor sales or consumption would not be allowed in any of the proposed seating areas.

“City staff is going to present a proposal to City Council Tuesday night for some things we think are necessary, not only for downtown but throughout Elizabeth City to help our restaurant owners,” City Manager Rich Olson said Wednesday. “We are still in the process of formulating that (proposal). It may allow us to close some public streets during certain nights.’’

Elizabeth City Downtown, Inc. Director Deborah Malenfant said she supports and will encourage council to add the seating options to help restaurants.

“I am hoping they relax restrictions on outdoor dining areas and I am open to relaxing temporary signage restrictions,” Malenfant said. “I also hope they will temporarily relax some restrictions on alcohol consumption on public property.’’

Memorial Day observances will be different because of virus

Some Memorial Day observances will look a little different this weekend because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With outdoor mass gatherings currently restricted to 25 people under Phase Two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s restriction-easing plan, some traditional ceremonies have either been canceled or will be held without public participation.

Camden County kicks things off Friday with its annual flag raising ceremony at the courthouse at 10 a.m. The event will be open to the public.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6060 in Elizabeth City will conduct honors at New Hollywood Cemetery on Monday at 11 a.m. However, in the interest of complying with the governor’s restrictions on outdoor gatherings, the ceremony is not intended to be a public event. Several members of the Post 6060 and the post’s honor guard are expected to participate in the event.

American Legion Post 126 in Perquimans County has canceled its annual Memorial Day ceremony on Monday. However, the post’s Ladies Auxiliary Unit 126 will conduct its annual Memorial Day Poppy Program Friday. Auxiliary members will be at Woodard’s Pharmacy in Hertford. The Legion Post also placed flags on veterans’ gravesites at local cemeteries earlier in the week.

While there won’t be a traditional ceremony on Monday, American Legion Post 126 plans to post colors on the Perquimans County Courthouse lawn. Wreaths will also be laid at the memorial by the post, Auxiliary Unit 126, Perquimans County, and the towns of Hertford and Winfall. The flags and wreaths will be on display until 4 p.m.

In Chowan, American Legion Post 40 has also altered its plans for Memorial Day. The post will place flags on the gravesites of veterans at Beaver Hill and Vine Oak cemeteries Sunday starting at 3 p.m. The event is open to the public.

Post 40 will then lay wreaths at the Veterans Memorial behind the Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton Monday at 11 a.m. The event will include a recorded playing of the National Anthem and taps. The public is invited but will be expected to follow social distancing rules.

Plans for Currituck County’s annual Memorial Day Beach Blast also have changed because of COVID-19. The event will be held virtually Monday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Residents can tune in on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yAU5yVpc5o.

ARHS reports 2 more deaths in region

The region’s health department is reporting two more COVID-19 deaths in the eight-county region, including a seventh death at an Elizabeth City nursing home and the first virus-related death in Gates County.

Albemarle Regional Health Services also announced Thursday that its multi-county public transportation service will restart on Tuesday in response to Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to lift more COVID-19 restrictions on Friday.

ARHS said both deaths reported Thursday were persons over age 65 who succumbed to complications from the highly contagious respiratory disease. The COVID-19 deaths raise the total in the eight-county region to 15.

“Again we are extremely saddened by the loss of these community members,” ARHS Director Battle Betts said in a press release. “Our heart goes out to the family and friends of these individuals. This virus continues to take a toll on our community and its residents.”

An ARHS spokeswoman confirmed the Pasquotank County death — the county’s eighth — was a resident at Elizabeth City Health & Rehabilitation, where 57 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported. Thirty-eight of the cases involve residents; 19 involve staff members. All seven deaths at the facility have been residents.

ARHS said it continues to work with the nursing home on its COVID-19 outbreak. The health department is also working with Bertie Correctional Institution where six staff members and 10 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and Rivers Correctional Institution in Winton where 22 staff members and 20 inmates have tested positive.

The health department said it’s also now working with Ahoskie House, an assisted living facility in Hertford County, where three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. The N.C. Department of Health & Human Services considers an outbreak at congregate housing facilities like prisons and nursing homes to be two or more cases.

ARHS has previously reported that outbreaks at Pasquotank Correctional Institution and Three Rivers Rehabilitation Center in Bertie County are considered resolved. DHHS considers an outbreak to be over when there is no evidence of continued transmission at a facility.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the eight-county region, meanwhile, rose on Thursday to 317, as Pasquotank, Bertie and Perquimans reported additional cases.

Statewide, the number of COVID-19 cases rose to 20,910, an increase of 788 from Wednesday. The number of statewide COVID-19 deaths rose to 716, an increase of 14. The number of persons hospitalized with COVID-19 rose by 24 to 578. The number of completed COVID-19 cases rose to 290,645, an increase of more than 13,000 from Wednesday.

DHHS also reported this week that the number of COVID-19 patients who’ve recovered from the virus reached 11,637. That apparently includes 221 COVID-19 patients in ARHS’ eight-county region.

According to ARHS, all 11 of Currituck’s cases are now considered to have recovered and two of Camden’s three cases have recovered. Elsewhere, 58 of Pasquotank’s 93 cases have recovered; 10 of Gates’ 14 cases have recovered; 42 of Hertford’s 60 cases have recovered; and 75 of Bertie’s 99 cases have recovered. In addition, 11 of Chowan’s 14 cases have recovered and 12 of Perquimans’ 23 cases have recovered.

As a region, 70 percent of the positive cases involve persons who’ve recovered from the disease.

ARHS also said Thursday that its InterCounty Public Transportation service will begin accepting reservations for persons needing transportation to medical appointments and places of employment. However, no trips will be made to locations with a known COVID-19 outbreak.

ICPTA suspended most of its services in mid-March in response to the coronavirus outbreak. At the time, the public transportation service was only transporting clients to “critical” medical appointments in Pasquotank, Chowan, Perquimans, Camden and Currituck counties.

When it begins transporting more clients again on Tuesday, ICPTA will ask them a series of screening questions before they’re allowed to board a vehicle. Clients also must wear a mask and follow social distancing rules in the vehicle.

Persons wishing to make a reservation may call ICPTA at 252-338-4480.

Schools tweaking remote learning for next year

Local school officials will soon be asking what has worked about the district’s remote instruction efforts — and what hasn’t — as they seek to fine-tune online learning plans for the upcoming school year.

Development of a remote instruction plan and its submission to the State Board of Education by July 20 is a requirement under COVID-19 relief legislation recently passed by the N.C. General Assembly.

Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools Superintendent Catherine Edmonds addressed the state requirements during a live-streamed informational update on the ECPPS website earlier this week.

The legislation requires each school district to provide a “detailed framework for delivering quality remote instruction” to students in 2020-21. As part of that framework, each district’s school calendar is required to include five remote learning days.

Under the COVID-19 relief legislation, schools are expected to provide training and practice sessions for students on how to use remote instruction platforms during “non-remote instruction days.”

Edmonds and Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education Chairman Denauvo Robinson said during this week’s update that they appreciate the community’s support and flexibility during what Robinson noted has been an “unprecedented time.”

Calendar requirements for next year also indicate the school year must begin Aug. 17 and end by June 11.

Edmonds said the ECPPS Calendar Committee will present an updated calendar for the 2020-21 school year for the school board to vote on at its May 26 meeting.

ECPPS is looking for input from the public as it develops its remote learning plan for next school year.

“We are seeking your feedback,” Edmonds said.

Remote learning will continue through the rest of the school year. The school district also wants to be sure it’s ready in the event remote learning has to be used at the start of next school year, she said.

Edmonds also gave an update on the district’s child nutrition program, which has served 130,865 meals, including 61,025 breakfasts and 69,850 lunches.

Families with school-age children are encouraged to pick up meals, Edmonds said, noting children do not have to be on free or reduced lunch in order to participate.

The school district will continue to serve meals through August, according to Edmonds.

Edmonds said information on graduation and end-of-year events will be available this week. The schools are working to ensure the events meet state and Center for Disease Control guidelines, she said.

She encouraged parents and others interested in the district to follow ECPPS on all social media platforms.