Diners cautiously venture back into Georgia's restaurants

Atlanta (AFP) –


Sitting at a Waffle House counter has never felt so satisfying for Kim Kaseta, who was enjoying her sausage and egg breakfast in relative solitude in Atlanta.

One month after Georgia joined most other US states in issuing a shelter-in-place order to help fight the deadly coronavirus pandemic, the southern state eased its restrictions on restaurants Monday to allow dine-in service.

"Oh my gosh," Kaseta, a 64-year-old hair stylist, exulted when asked how it felt to finally be returning to her local breakfast spot.

"It's not even a feeling you can explain any more because it's something we've never had to do," she said of the isolation and social distancing that have become the norm across the country and in many parts of the world.

"We need human touch, human contact," she said, as mask-wearing short-order cooks whipped up all-American breakfasts on a flat grill.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has taken some of the nation's most aggressive steps to reopen businesses devastated by the crisis in a bid to stave off further economic disaster.

But not all Georgians were on the same page.

Most restaurants in the state were expected to remain closed Monday, or continue with just take-out service until they deem it safe to open their doors.

Waffle House, a major chain headquartered in Georgia, said it is opening most of its 400 restaurants in the state for dine-in service.

- New rules, new concerns -

Kemp has imposed some three dozen rules on restaurants, including mandatory masks for employees and reconfiguring layouts to limit dine-in customers to 10 for every 500 square feet (46 square meters).

"It's exciting, but that's tempered with concern," Waffle House public relations director Njeri Boss said.

Employees were generally keen to resume serving customers face-to-face but "there are those who are not ready to come back to work," Boss said. "And that's OK."

Jill Le Roy, a construction and property maintenance worker, said she is non-plussed about the coronavirus outbreaks that have killed 916 people in Georgia, and was eager for restaurants to reopen.

She said it "feels normal, feels good" to be back in a booth having a meal.

"This is like having breakfast with family," she said.

At Moe's Original BBQ a few miles away, the vibe was a bit busier, and local owner Brian Mancuso was happy to see his customers trickling back in for a lunch.

"We're super excited about being allowed to come back to work in a more full capacity (and) we're doing the best we can to follow the guidelines," he said.

Operating with a skeleton crew during the lockdown was "very difficult," Mancuso said, and most employees were eager to return to work.

Staff were seen scrubbing down tables, booths, and the bar with disinfectant.

"We want to be sure we're offering a safe and healthy environment for our guests and our employees, and we feel like we've done that," Mancuso said.