Montgomery restaurants can again serve customers in person — outside

Montgomery restaurants can again serve customers in person — outside

First phase of relaxed restrictions has eateries pleased, vigilant

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A family is waited on for lunch at Cesco Osteria, an Italian restaurant in Bethesda, on Monday

Photos by Matt McDonald

Montgomery County residents on Monday finally could do something that pandemic restrictions deprived them of for months — sitting down for a nice meal at a restaurant.

That development came once the county gave the green light for bars and restaurants to welcome customers for outdoor dining.

But reopening has not been a straightforward process for businesses grappling with how to keep workers and customers safe from viral exposure.

Of the places that reopened Monday, some happily ran out of tables by dinnertime. But other restaurants kept their patios closed, not yet ready for the new challenges of serving meals.

Customers are seated outside for dinner at Mon Ami Gabi, a French restaurant in Bethesda, on Monday.

One location that reopened to an influx of hungry customers was Mon Ami Gabi, a French bistro on Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda with a red awning and matching patio umbrellas.

General Manager Adam Murphy said prospective patrons were lining up for seats outside in the beautiful weather — sunny, in the 70s with a light breeze. He estimated the wait at about 45 minutes a little after 7 p.m.

“It’s just a gorgeous day. It’s the first night things are open. Everybody’s out and about,” Murphy said.

Many county bars and restaurants need that support badly. Establishments have operated in the red for months after health measures closed their premises and ordered their customers to stay at home. Efforts to survive from carryout and delivery are up against financial currents strong enough to sink even longstanding Bethesda establishments.

In order for eateries to open their decks and patios back up to the public, they must comply with Montgomery County public health rules regarding measures like physical distancing, protective equipment and sanitization.

Customers took advantage of patio seating at Caddies in Bethesda on Monday evening.

The county also released a “restaurants checklist” with guidance that expands on those health rules. Recommendations include measures to minimize contact between customers and the potential spread of the virus, like using disposable menus and utensils.

The checklist also includes guidance that recognizes the reality that restaurants, as hubs of social interaction in their communities, play a frontline role in the pandemic.

Restaurants are encouraged to use online reservation systems to keep a log of customers for contact tracing, in case one later tests positive for COVID-19. The checklist emphasizes the need for establishments to have a strategy to communicate safety requirements to the public.

Some county restaurants have developed extensive plans for this new phase of service.

At Mon Ami Gabi, tables have been spaced far enough apart that only 22 of them fit outdoors, instead of the normal 30, Murphy said.

The restaurant even has found a technological solution for minimizing person-to-person contact from menus – they’re completely digital. Customers can scan a QR code using a cellphone and the bistro’s menu pops up.

Mon Ami Gabi General Manager Adam Murphy demonstrates how the restaurant’s digital menu works as he scans a QR code on Monday.

At Caddies, a sports bar in Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle, security guards keep a physical logbook of customers. They also take the temperature of every person who enters the premises, including delivery drivers dropping by to pick up orders.

Ronnie Heckman, the owner, said the reopening process has been smooth due to the efforts of the staff. Everyone at Caddies is doing their part to protect the public and ensure smooth phases of reopening.

“We’ll keep getting through this all together,” Heckman said.

Stephanie Salvatore co-owns three Montgomery County restaurants. One of them — Persimmon, which serves up American-style bistro fare southeast of Bethesda Row — has been closed for months, she said, but the management is looking into how to safely reopen.

“I’m a little over the top because I don’t want to know how this virus affects me or anybody that works for me,” Salvatore said.

A restaurant group that is one owner of the farm-to-table establishment Founding Farmers created a video in late May explaining the restaurant’s efforts to make their locations safe for customers. Founding Farms has several locations, including one in Potomac.

Even as he sought to demystify that process for customers, Farmers Restaurant Group owner Dan Simons said in the video that he understood that “not everybody’s ready to eat out.”

Elaine Sheetz, a co-owner of Cesco Osteria, worried of larger, long-term change in diners’ behavior.

Her Italian restaurant has been a part of Bethesda’s landscape for 23 years. The establishment has hosted hundreds of events each year, from parties to weddings to bar mitzvahs.

After the pandemic has subsided, she wondered, will the celebrations return?

“People used to dance ’til midnight,” she said. “[I’m] not sure when they’ll feel safe doing so again.”

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