Once Gov. Henry McMaster announced he would allow outdoor dining at restaurants across the state again starting Monday, Horry County restaurants sprang into action.
Many local eateries began serving diners outside or announced plans to offer outdoor dining in the near future.
“It’s very exciting,” said Shannon Jordan, general manager of The Marina Bar and Grill in North Myrtle Beach, which is offering outside dining at Barefoot Resort.
For weeks, Jordan has heard from customers ready to dine on site.
“It’s been a long six weeks,” she said. “We’re ready to have people enjoy the outdoors and be able to be waited on again.”
While some restaurant operators have been eager to give customers another option instead of just takeout, curbside and delivery, the change has come with challenges and adjustments as places further shift their business models.
The governor has implemented guidelines on outdoor dining based on the advice and recommendations from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and a task force formed by the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (SCRLA).
Tables are to be spaced at least eight feet from each other, and each table should have eight people or fewer. Restaurants are told to maintain strict social distancing guidelines, halt gatherings in buildings when entering or exiting an outdoor seating area and sanitize tables, chairs and seats after every customer.
Tents must have open sides, at least seven feet and six inches of head room and a state-approved fire extinguisher within 75 feet of them.
More guidelines can be found by clicking here.
Throughout the Grand Strand, restaurants were busy Monday organizing outdoor dining spaces and serving customers at them.
Patrons could be seen using disposable plates, cutlery and menus at one of The Trestle’s four additional outdoor tables in downtown Conway that were set up on Normal Alley.
Among them were Shirley and Tom Drews.
Seated at the patio-style table beneath an umbrella, Shirley Drews said while she was enjoying dining out, this was different.
“It’s something I’m used to,” she said. “However, it feels strange.”
Crave Italian Oven and Bar, which has had limited outdoor seating in the past, also added additional tables outside, and the Myrtle Beach restaurant garnered a few outdoor diners Monday, owner Jesse Vaugh said.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge to do this long term,” he said. “Hopefully this is short term.”
Following the governor’s announcement, local officials have also eased restrictions for restaurants looking to offer the outdoor dining experience.
In Myrtle Beach, an amended order allows eateries in the city to use up to 25% of their required parking for outdoor dining.
Those outdoor dining areas must not pose a safety hazard, block the view of or access to nearby businesses, take reasonable steps to comply with sanitation guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DHEC and follow guidelines published by the SCRLA.
Also, Surfside Beach Town Council voted to suspend enforcement of a rule that bars outdoor dining in any public right-of-way.
Conway City Council on Monday instructed administrator Adam Emrick to temporarily relax enforcement of some city regulations on outdoor dining. The idea is to help restaurants make some additional money until the governor allows indoor dining again.
Emrick said he would work with restaurants on their specific requests, including allowing the sidewalk sale of beer and wine and permitting service in alleyways and parking spaces.
“It would be very helpful for these restaurants to be able to stay afloat,” he said.
McMaster’s decision to allow outdoor dining comes weeks after he shut down dine-in service in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, local restaurants have been forced to cope.
Since the ban went into effect, many have seen extreme drops in sales, with numerous employees losing work. Some shuttered because they could not survive solely on takeout.
Despite Crave’s take-out and delivery business in recent weeks being better than what its operators had anticipated, sales are still nowhere near than what it typically garners when fully operational.
Vaugh pointed out Crave already had to adapt in converting to a business only offering to-go and delivery orders, ordering additional supplies that hadn’t been used there before.
“It’s been a change adapting, but I feel we’ve done a good job,” he said. “Our crew is dedicated to just saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to do what it takes and we’ll figure it out.’”
Though restaurants have been able to sell sealed containers of wine and beer, having a customer be able to drink at the bar is crucial for businesses such as Crave and The Marina Bar and Grill.
“That’s a major revenue source for us,” Vaugh said.
Happy hour is a key staple of many restaurants that sell alcohol.
Although curbside sales have been solid and many “loyal customers” have patronized the business, Terry Bedell, manager at The Trestle, said the COVID-19 crisis has caused it to cut back a lot of its catering.
Weddings have been canceled, and parties that were booked have largely been postponed to the fall. Staff members are delivering lunches locally, but must take extra precaution when doing so.
Restaurateurs are hopeful outdoor dining can yield positive results though.
“It was challenging how we were going to do it, but it’s also very exciting because I think it’s going to really work,” Bedell said. “It’s going to be something good for us.”
She and others said outdoor dining grants more opportunities for employees to work.
Not only can outdoor dining ensure one’s appetite is satiated, but it’s a way to bring back some normalcy for diners amid the outbreak.
“We have a lot of retired people who love The Trestle … and they miss coming and socializing,” Bedell said. “This is something for you to do.”
While Vaugh, the Crave owner, believes outdoor dining coming back is a step in the right direction, the restaurant’s operators will be more excited when patrons can dine inside.
“When we bought this spot and decided to open this restaurant up, we opened it up assuming we could have, you know, 100 people in here,” he said, “so anything less than that is not based on what we based our numbers on, and it isn’t really helping us.”
Reporter Charles Perry contributed to this story.