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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Nervous, rusty, excited: Idaho restaurants welcome customers back with relief and concern

After almost two months, the owner of the Garnet Cafe in Coeur d’Alene opened the doors of her business to customers on Saturday and found it was an unexpectedly emotional feat.

As customers walked into a remodeled cafe, the space had a different atmosphere than it did before the pandemic, according to owner Kristin Von Till.

“I was very happy to be reopening, but it was surprising how emotional it was to have people waiting outside,” Von Till said of the line of people unable to get in due to social distancing requirements that reduced capacity.

Although it has been somewhat strange to only be able to fill half of the cafe at a time, everyone is more than happy to follow public health guidelines, Von Till said. And regular customers have been especially supportive.

The Garnet Cafe, like other restaurants in Idaho, got the green light to offer customers limited dine-in services on May 16 as part of the second stage of Gov. Brad Little’s four-stage plan to reopen the state.

Before Idaho can move on to the next stage, the state needs to meet public health criteria, including a downward trend of reported COVID-19-like symptoms.

People have different opinions about reopening, and Von Till said her biggest concern is ensuring people are following health guidelines.

But reopening is not only about health. Many people rely on their jobs at the Garnet or other restaurants to feed their families, Von Till said.

“I kind of told everybody in the restaurant we need to keep the politics out of it because we’re responsible to each other and I don’t want to do anything that’s going to jeopardize anyone’s ability to make a living,” she said.

Von Till bought the cafe about two years ago and had been working there since it opened in 2010. When closures were first announced in mid-March, Von Till said she was concerned because the profits small businesses bring in are razor-thin. The cafe remained open, thanks to strong community support. She also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan for the cafe, which helped with payroll, utilities and rent.

“Not all small businesses, especially restaurants, are going to be able to come back, so we feel really fortunate,” she said.

Some restaurants in downtown Moscow chose to opt out of offering dine-in services this weekend.

Tapped Taphouse and Kitchen was one of the few businesses that decided to offer limited dine-in services to customers.

The atmosphere was buzzing and energetic. People were thrilled to be back after many weeks, said Tyler Antkowiak, general manager and co-owner of Tapped.

During the weeks when dine-in service wasn’t allowed, switching from a place where people come to hang out to a curbside delivery business was a big transition.

“We’re not a delivery business, we’re a hospitality business,” Antkowiak said.

The restaurant is close to the University of Idaho and Washington State University, so its busiest times generally coincide with graduation and other celebrations. This year, though, everything was closed down.

“While we’re operating strongly enough that we’ll be able to absorb that impact, we will be working to balance things out for months,” Antkowiak said.

People’s safety remains a priority. Apart from following the state’s recommendations, Tapped is offering disposable menus to customers and asking staff to wear gloves and masks, Antkowiak said.

Varsity Diner in Moscow also reopened this weekend with staff following health district guidelines, but Manager George Swanger said business is slower than usual.

“We hope it wasn’t too soon or there are some spikes in cases,” he said. “Businesses wouldn’t fare well if they had to close again.”

People in the hospitality industry love to help people and talk to them, Swanger said, so these past weeks have been hard on many employees.

“It was like reopening again for the first time. Everybody was nervous, everybody’s a little rusty, but it was also exciting,” he said.

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