Area restaurants are meeting COVID-19 safety requirements. Now, the challenge is convincing the public to dine inside.

In 2019, there were so many good restaurants in Wilmington and Southern Chester County, it was hard to pinpoint the best one for a date night, ladies’ lunch, or celebration dinner. That was particularly true during Brandywine Valley Restaurant Week; there wasn’t enough time to try all the multi-course specials.

Fast forward to fall 2020. There is still a bevy of first-class, independently owned restaurants. And this year, you have more time to savor the deals: Brandywine Valley Restaurant Week runs Oct 12-22.

But given the pandemic, many diners are more worried about safety than choice or bargains. The good news: When it comes to safety, restaurants are stepping up to the plate.

“Overall, we’ve been pleased,” says Jamie Mack, chief of Health Systems Protection in the Delaware Division of Public Health. “We recognize that there are a lot of challenges in operating this way.”

Swimming Against the Current

It started on March 16, 2020, when Governor John Carney closed restaurant dining rooms to help flatten the coronavirus curve. The next day, they were allowed to offer takeout and delivery. On June 1, restaurants could reopen at a limited capacity—initially 30%. Shortly after, Carney upped the capacity cap to 60%.

However, the state implanted certain restrictions, such as wearing a mask and complying with social distancing. Staff should always wear a face-covering; guests should wear one unless they are seated while eating or drinking. There should be six feet between tables and barstool groupings.

Since June, DPH has made both routine and complaint-based inspections. The first visit focuses on education, he explains. A restaurant that does not check all the boxes must be compliant before the follow-up visit. “We routinely see improvements,” he says.  If further action is needed, the restaurant might receive a warning letter or monetary fine. According to Mack, only one restaurant has been forced to close for failing to meet DDPH COVID-19 requirements and that establishment made the corrections needed and was permitted to reopen the next day.

Meanwhile, Carrie Leishman, president, and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, is on a mission to show that restaurants are safe. Multiple government entities and inspectors already regulate eateries, she notes.

The nonprofit organization recently sponsored an independent study to determine if Delaware’s establishments were complying with DPH COVID-19 guidelines. Individuals trained in safety protocols visited 75 restaurants throughout Delaware, from large chains to independent eateries. Some had bar service; others did not. The inspectors looked to see if the staff and guests were wearing masks. Were the tables properly distanced? Was hand sanitizer available?

According to the results, at 84% of the targeted sites guests and staff wore face coverings. The tables were correctly spaced at nearly 94% of the locations, and COVID-19 signage was on display in 87.1% of the sites. And 93% of those inspectors indicated they are likely to return to a restaurant for inside dining.

“Most restaurants are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the customer,” Leishman says.

Creating a Safe Haven

It all starts with the staff, says Xavier Teixido, owner of Harry’s Savoy Grill in Brandywine Hundred and co-owner of Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon in Wilmington. (A second Kid Shelleen’s is still planned for Branmar Shopping Center.)

“I mean, here’s a situation in which the most dangerous thing in the room could be a person,” the seasoned restaurateur says. “We can’t mitigate risk to the guest unless we’ve mitigated it first—as much as we can—with the staff.”

Management should ask workers the same questions every time they report for their shift. “Do you know anyone with COVID? Have you been exposed?” Teixido says. If the answer is yes, the employees should stay home until they have received a negative test result.

Dan Tagle, the executive chef at Krazy Kat’s in Montchanin, agrees that training is paramount. Tagle has taught the ProStart high school curriculum, which was developed by the National Restaurant Association. As soon as the state gave restaurants the green light, he scheduled a Zoom call with his staff to go over the regulations.

“One takeaway from teaching is to remove any and all gray areas,” he says. “Be as specific as possible. Follow the rules; it’s common sense. Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.” If an employee forgets a mask, Tagle gives them one from the stash in his office.

He believes in regularly revisiting the training. “It’s as important as the training itself,” he says. “You know, this isn’t normal for everybody.”

Since servers aren’t making as much in tips as they have in the past, Tagle does whatever he can to boost morale, including reading aloud positive customer feedback.

Signs of Change

Diners with a keen eye will notice differences at their favorite eatery. At Krazy Kat’s, chargers are no longer preset on the table. “We don’t even put candles on the table unless a guest requests it,” Tagle says. “We’re offering packets of salt and pepper. I’m not the biggest fan of that, but it is what it is.” Pepper grinders are produced upon demand, but they’re sanitized after each use.

At Harry’s Savoy and Kid Shelleen’s, guests can use their phone to scan a QR code and read a contactless menu. Buckley’s now has single-use paper menus.

Courtesy of an employee with carpentry skills, Harry’s Savoy Grill has installed physical barriers between booths to enhance safety. Photo courtesy Harry’s Savoy Grill.

The Centreville restaurant has always followed a strict cleaning protocol. After all, co-owner and chef Tom Hannum worked at the Hotel du Pont when the DuPont Co. owned it. “I learned to follow the rules,” says Hannum, whose restaurant recently served the governor. “It’s easy to do.”

Admittedly, there are more rules to follow. Buckley’s started sanitizing seat cushions. At Krazy Kat’s, even fresh flowers get a spritz of disinfectant, although it hastens their demise. “We’re changing them out regularly,” Tagle says.

The flower budget is not the only line item that’s increasing. Hand sanitizer is readily available at most restaurants, and, often, it’s placed front and center. Along with hand sanitizer stations, Teixido has installed air purifiers and UV-light sanitizers in the dining rooms.

Both Harry’s Savoy Grill and Buckley’s Tavern have installed custom-made physical barriers between booths, which allows them to seat more people. “They look like they’ve always been there,” notes Hannum, who is fortunate to have an employee with carpentry skills.

Since seeing is believing, Teixido and partner Kelly O’Hanlon updated Kid Shelleen’s floors and kitchen surfaces, so they are clearly “clean and new,” he says. Now more than ever before, staff uniforms and masks must be immaculate, he adds. All masks must cover their nose and mouth.

“But on the other side, how do you express hospitality with a mask?” he asks. Servers have learned to place their palms together and bow or touch their heart to express gratitude.

Ultimately, the choice to dine in a restaurant depends on your comfort level. “If you are in a population that can be considered vulnerable—either because of age or an underlying illness—you may want to consider staying home,” Mack says. “If you do choose to go out, educate yourself about what restaurants should be doing to serve people in a COVID-safe manner.

Pay attention when you enter the restaurant. “Does it look like they’re doing a good job? Is everybody spaced out? Are all the servers and staff wearing face coverings? You can make an educated decision,” says Mack, who has dined out with his family.

Sitting outside is an option at many restaurants, and operators are looking to extend the alfresco season. And if you still don’t want to dine on-site, consider takeout. Krazy Kat’s and Harry’s Savoy are among the restaurants that are offering specials to go.

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.

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