After almost two months of semi-isolation, we decided to eat out after a trip to a local park yesterday. My daughter requested Steak and Shake so off we went and when we saw that the dining room was open, we spontaneously decided to have our first dining-out experience since the Coronavirus hit the fan in mid-March.
This wasn’t the first time we had ordered from restaurants in all that time. We had gotten carryout several times and, in a first for us in this house, we had food delivered. We live in a rural area that was outside the delivery area of all local restaurants until recently when Waitr and DoorDash expanded to include our neighborhood. Even so, we were all craving some junk food by this week.
It was late Friday afternoon when we walked into the Steak and Shake. One of the first things that I noticed was that the restaurant was almost empty. There was only one other couple in the entire establishment, which would normally be packed at that time of day.
The second thing I noticed was that there was a large container of hand sanitizer at the host station. Most of the tables had signs on them saying that they couldn’t be used due to social distancing requirements that mandated that diners be seated six feet away from other groups. With the slim crowd, we still had our pick of almost every table in the establishment.
While we ordered and waited for our food, we talked to two waitresses, who thanked us profusely for coming. They explained that almost no one wanted to come inside to eat, even though the drive-through seemed to be doing a brisk business.
We live in Georgia, which has officially been reopened since the end of April, but what we saw was the fundamental truth that removing shelter-in-place restrictions has very little effect if people don’t feel safe. Most people are electing to maintain their distancing and avoid public places when possible.
Maybe this is because they are concerned about catching COVID-19 themselves, especially if they are in a high-risk category. It’s also likely, however, that many are concerned about infecting someone else. That’s why my church had elected not to hold in-person services until June, even though Georgia’s current emergency order allows public services if houses of worship meet certain criteria.
Interestingly, the experience has been somewhat different at other stores. Some businesses follow strict protocols, masked employees and marks on the floor to show where to stand in line, while others seem like the pre- COVID normal except for the lack of customers. A demonstrated lack of concern may have something to do with missing customers in some stores.
I’ve seen few people wearing gloves while shopping but mask usage is about 60 percent in my experience. I’ve also noticed that there seems to be a strong correlation between people with masks, which includes a cross-section of Georgia demographics, and those who respect the six-foot rule.
Understandably, grocery stores seem to be busier than anything else. Home improvement stores run a close second. Stores are limiting the occupancy so it isn’t uncommon to see customers queued up outside, sometimes maintaining their distance and sometimes not, waiting for their turn to shop.
Georgia isn’t back to normal yet, despite being open for business. Restarting the economy isn’t as simple as flipping a switch and saying, “Come on in.” It will take time for people to be comfortable enough to approach the pre-COVID status quo. This is especially those who are high-risk or who are close to someone who is,
Without a vaccine or an effective treatment, it might be a long time indeed.