Restaurateur and chef Ryan Parrott sat on the sunny patio of OSO Paseo this afternoon, sweat running out of his black latex gloves as his masked employees prepared cocktails and to-go orders. Behind him, three men were enjoying their first experience “at” a restaurant in several weeks thanks to COVID-19 shutdown orders for Oklahoma businesses.
“I would think after 25 years that I’ve seen everything,” Parrott said, quoting the observation of OSO’s general manager. “This is unprecedented, so we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to react, and we don’t know how to react when we don’t know what is going to happen.”
When Gov. Kevin Stitt announced last week that a three-phase plan to re-open Oklahoma businesses would largely begin today, the uncertainty described by Parrott was felt by business owners across the state. Stitt’s plan allowed certain personal-care businesses to reopen on an appointment-only basis on April 24. But today restaurants, theaters, sporting venues, gyms, tattoo parlors and places of worship were allowed to open as long as they follow social-distancing and sanitation procedures.
“We decided to go with kind of a half-step model,” said Parrott, who also operates the Picasso Cafe and Frida Southwest in the Paseo. “The first phase for us is allowing people hang out on our patios. Still really limited service. It’s still all to-go food. We will make them a cocktail if they want to hang out while their food is being made.”
Emphasizing that employee safety is his top priority, Parrott said he is still working to develop and implement additional protocols, training and spacial changes beyond the state and city requirements for restaurants. Two of his three Paseo restaurants had been doing carryout only for weeks before adding patio seating today.
“I think the next step would be full service on the patio and maybe look at some almost private dining groups in the restaurant,” said Parrott, who has not applied for the Paycheck Protection Program owing to certain requirements about bringing back staff members. “We have obviously been operating at a loss, so what we are doing now is not sustainable longterm.”
This evening marks the monthly “First Friday” art walk in the Paseo, a night Parrott typically expects to do good business at his restaurants.
“If a lot of folks do want to get out for First Friday, it’s a beautiful day,” said Parrott, who started in the restaurant industry at age 14. “I don’t know any restaurants down here that are open for full dining. (…) The sales are really going to rely on people’s comfort.”
Oklahoma businesses making different decisions
The restaurant industry has been particularly hard-hit by the shutdowns resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, but not all of Oklahoma City’s restaurants have jumped at the chance to reopen.
Near Quail Springs Mall, for instance, The Metro Diner on Memorial Road is sticking to its takeout-only menu for the time being, but Saltgrass Steakhouse on Memorial Road featured a sign saying the restaurant was open and a “Welcome Back” message to customers. Elsewhere in northwest Oklahoma City, Jimmy’s Egg on Hefner opened its doors for business this morning. A smattering of people could be seen dining inside as servers wore masks.
Among those opting to stay closed is the Rococo restaurant group, which explained in an Instagram post, “We want to wait for more data, give this a few more weeks and be methodical in our planning for our approach to a safe, healthy service environment.”
On Northwest 23rd Street, Basil Mediterranean Cafe owner Nina Bastani decided to open today, but she said business patterns had not changed much. People had come for takeout, but only three customers decided to dine inside.
“I trained my employees to do the sanitizing right after customers leave,” said Bastani, who was wearing a KN95 mask. “As you see, there is nothing on the tables so it is easy to spray and sanitize right after customers.”
Opening was “a tough decision” for Bastani, who has bought masks, disposable utensils, and other product focused on sanitation. She said she applied for and received approval for the federal Paycheck Protection Program but has not heard back about a second small business loan Basil has applied for.
“We are behind for the rent and also a little bit on checks. Like for Sysco, we are a little bit behind on that,” said Bastani, who has owned Basil for about eight years. “It’s a family business. We have to try to stay open.”
Distancing and crowding during the flyover
As many of Oklahoma City’s businesses started showing their first signs of life in weeks, the city’s citizens displayed the varying attitudes currently at play when it comes to the risks posed by the novel coronavirus.
This morning, hundreds gathered at Lake Hefner to watch a flyover by the 97th Air Mobility Wing and the 71st Flight Training Wing of the United States Air Force to honor those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis.
As the C-17 Globemaster cargo planes, KC 46 tankers and T-38 Talons flew overhead, people perched on the tailgates of their pickups, gazing up and snapping pictures with smartphones. While most people kept their distance from one another, there was at least one group of approximately 25 who didn’t observe social distancing guidelines and crowded together.
Only a handful of people wore face coverings or masks.
Norman follows own plan, draws court filing
In Norman, it is unclear exactly how many restaurants are opening their doors for dine-in service. Today, most of the restaurants on the formerly bustling Campus Corner restaurants still feature “take-out only” memos. One restaurant on Main Street, Neighborhood Jam, decided to allow dine-in service, with guests being seated at least one table apart, a hostess said.
Norman Mayor Breea Clark announced Tuesday that the city would be taking a more conservative approach to re-opening than the one laid out in the governor’s plan.
The city’s personal-care services and and places of worship will have to wait until May 15 to open. Theaters and bars won’t be allowed to open until May 29.
Some local business owners are not happy about the stricter timeline.
On Thursday, the owners of three cosmetology businesses in Norman filed a request for a restraining order and injunction against Clark in Cleveland County District Court.
The request (embedded below) was filed by the owners of Liorpaloma, Polished Beauty Bar and Le Visage Spa & Wellness. It claims “there is no basis” for making the city’s cosmetology businesses to remain closed until May 15 when neighboring businesses have been allowed to resume activity.
The plaintiffs believe their businesses have been unfairly singled out, noting that Norman is the “only city in the state where a person cannot get a haircut.”
“The threat of COVID-19 is not increased or altered, whether plaintiffs operate their business or not,” the filing states.
(Correction: This story was updated at 4:12 p.m. Friday, May 1, to reference the company Sysco correctly.)