Circle II employees

Shelley Vanhorn (left), manager at the Circle II restaurant, and Austin Mullis, a restaurant employee, illustrate Thursday how dine-in customers will be seated at every other table when the restaurant reopens next week. The Circle II is among the thousands of restaurants statewide that will reopen to dine-in customers as Phase Two of Gov. Roy Cooper’s easing of COVID-19 restrictions takes effect today at 5 p.m.

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.”