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Kentucky tightens restaurant restrictions, while Utah green lights buffets

The moves are part of a recent flurry of new government actions aimed at restaurant guests, employees and operators.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Utah has given buffet and 24-hour restaurants the go-ahead to reopen with adjusted operating procedures, while Kentucky has tightened its restrictions on service, rolling back dine-in capacities to 25% of available seating and shutting bars as if today for at least two weeks.

The moves by the states’ respective governors were part of a flurry of government activity aimed at addressing the current impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on restaurant operations. The measures range from a proposal unanimously approved by the City Council of Oakland, Calif., to grant furloughed restaurant and hotel workers a first crack at resuming their former positions when employers are ready to re-staff, to an initiative floated in New Jersey to reimburse restaurants for the food they purchased and then had to discard when the state suddenly dropped its plan to resume dine-in service.

The diversity of the measures reflects how the re-openings of states, counties and municipalities are being shaped by differences in their success at controlling the spread of COVID-19. Kentucky, for instance, was told point-blank by Dr. Deborah Birx, response coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force,  to act immediately if it wanted to avoid the sharp upswing in new infections that have packed hospitals in Texas, Florida and Arizona.

“Whether or not our economy can stay open and flourish depends on our ability to control the virus,” Gov. Andy Beshear said in announcing his state’s step backward.

But even in jurisdictions like New York, which has gone from the country’s coronavirus hot spot to its model of how infection rates can be checked, elected officials have been taking further action. Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned again on Monday that he will impose more restrictions on restaurants and bars if their customers continue to congregate in large numbers and forgo masks. The state’s chief executive revealed at a press conference Monday that 132 restaurants and bars have been written up by the State Liquor Authority for failing to follow the state’s anti-COVID safety measures, such as requiring all patrons to wear masks.

"A situation that we're watching is lack of compliance, particularly among young people, bars and restaurants,” Cuomo said at a press conference. “That's not unique to New York—it's a national problem.”

Utah, where on-premise alcohol service is extremely limited, has largely avoided the contamination risks posed elsewhere by bars. Still, it saw a significant upswing in new COVID-19 cases during July and has only recently flattened the curve.

The state is believed to be one of the first to green light the reopening of buffets, which were expressly prohibited by most states as they reopened dining rooms. Many believe the self-service format works against social distancing, since guests mill about the food bars to serve themselves and typically use serving utensils that have already been handled by other customers.

To address those vulnerabilities, the state is requiring buffet restaurants either to have staff members dish out the food or mandate that guests use a hand sanitizer before each trip to the food bar. Masks must be worn by patrons when they’re in the food area.. Plates, bowls and cups have to be handed to the patrons instead of being stacked for the guests to grab themselves. Serving utensils must be changed every 30 minutes.

Restaurants that had remained open around the clock in pre-pandemic days can resume their 24-hour schedules, but must close for clearning and sanitation every morning and evening, or roughly every 12 hours.  

They and all places must continue to adhere to requirements that parties be seated at least six feet apart.

Oakland’s Right to Recall measure

Oakland’s City Council unanimously passed an emergency measure that requires some restaurant and hotel employers to rehire furloughed workers for reinstated jobs before offering the positions to other candidates. In instances where two former employees are vying for what’s been reduced to one position, the candidate with higher seniority is given the right of first refusal.

The measure takes effect on Aug. 15. Restaurant companies with fewer than 500 employees are exempt.

The move by the City Council makes Oakland the third major jurisdiction in California to adopt a so-called Right to Recall initiative, after San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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