Proceeding with caution: Tourism leaders respond to new recreational travel requirements

Thursday, May 14, 2020
Thai House is one of a few Eureka Springs restaurants that never stopped offering carry-out service during the pandemic.
Photo by Samantha Jones

By Samantha Jones

and Scott Loftis

Citizen.Editor.Eureka@gmail.com

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday, May 5, that recreational travel from other states to Arkansas can resume with some exceptions, and the Eureka Springs tourism industry is preparing for incoming travelers.

Hutchinson said the restriction for recreational travelers, which had previously prohibited out-of-state travel, was lifted for non hot-spot states across the country. Those hot spots include New York, New Orleans, New Jersey and Connecticut, Hutchinson said.

On April 4, Hutchinson had prohibited out-of-state recreational travel into the state — a move that led both the Crescent and Basin Park hotels in Eureka Springs to suspend operations the next day. Both hotels recently announced plans to reopen to in-state guests starting May 15. Jack Moyer, general manager and executive vice president of the Crescent, said the hotel’s guests and employees will be required to follow certain protocol during this phase of the reopening process.

Moyer said the hotel evaluates each address upon registration to be sure the visitor isn’t from a hot-spot area, saying that means the hotel can’t use online travel agency booking services like Expedia since those services don’t require an address to book a room.

“We evaluate each address upon registration,” Moyer said. “If they’re from the restricted area, we call them back and say we can’t take them.”

All guests will be issued a mask when they enter the hotel, Moyer said, and the hotel will only allow 50 percent occupancy, or 36 rooms. Moyer said the hotel will offer its four cottages as well.

“We’re taking reservations and seeing a very positive return in areas of cabins and cottages,” Moyer said. “Especially right now, if I wanted to travel to Eureka and I had an option for a nice single-use cabin that I knew had been cleaned in advance — doesn’t that sound wonderful? Eureka is blessed with a lot of lodging that is single-use.”

Moyer said the Crescent Hotel’s SkyBar restaurant and Basin Park Hotel’s Balcony Bar Restaurant will reopen for dine-in starting Friday, May 15, with dine-in taking place in the Crystal Dining Room instead of the SkyBar area. That’s because the Crystal Dining Room is spacious, Moyer said, and meets Hutchinson’s new protocol for dine-in restaurants.

Restaurants could choose to resume dine-in service on Monday, May 11, according to Hutchinson’s directive. The directive describes several requirements, including the following:

• Seating is limited to 33 percent capacity.

• There must be a 10-foot distance between tables.

• All staff who come in contact with patrons must wear a face mask that completely covers their nose and mouth.

• Gloves must be worn during food preparation.

• Patrons must wear a face covering upon entrance and while in the restaurant until food or drink is served; service will be declined to patrons not wearing masks.

• All staff must be screened daily before entering the facility for the symptoms of COVID-19.

• Groups are not to exceed 10 people.

• Self-service operations such as salad bars, buffets and condiment bars remain closed to patrons.

• Bars and entertainment operations such as live music, in-seat gaming devices and arcades within restaurants are prohibited.

Moyer said the Basin Park Hotel is following the same protocol, with the Balcony Bar Restaurant being spaced throughout the hotel. Jack Rabbett’s Whisky Bar can’t reopen yet, Moyer said, so it will serve as an extension of the Balcony Bar Restaurant. Moyer said the hotels were already following cleaning protocol, saying the hotels will only be open for hotel guests or guests of the restaurants. Moyer said he is adamant that all guests and employees wear masks when on the property, saying the employees are prepared to turn away guests who choose not to wear a mask.

“Transmission is the root cause of the issue. We know we’re going to protect our guests by having all our employees in masks,” Moyer said. “It’s a shared responsibility. Travel is a shared responsibility. It’s a socially responsible thing to do to space appropriately and when you cannot space appropriately, wear masks.”

Ruth Hager, who owns Sparky’s, said she plans to follow the same protocol when dine-in resumes on Thursday, May 21. Hager said she closed down the restaurant during the pandemic for a number of reasons, with the health and safety of her employees in mind. Hager said she’s been working on small projects around the restaurant in the meantime.

“We’ve been retiling some floors, repairing baseboards and fixing doors that were broken — little bitty things but they’re those projects you ignore because you’re busy,” Hager said. “Well, now we can actually fix the door handle.”

Hager said the restaurant has been the site where community members assemble and store free meals for those in need during the pandemic.

“It’s been nice to have our freezers available to help. I moved all my liquor bottles around. There’s a leak in the roof we’re getting repaired,” Hager said. “If it weren’t for the lack of money and lack of customers, it would be great being closed. We’re getting a lot done.”

Hager said she plans to offer around 20 tables for dine-in, saying the restaurant has plenty of space to keep the tables 10 feet apart.

“I’m going to require a cashier who is just at the register. She just handles money. That’s it,” Hager said. “I’ll have a hostess that just seats people and double-checks to make sure tables are sanitized and an extra position we’ll call porch patrol.”

Porch patrol will hang out by the front door, Hager said, to ensure that diners are wearing masks and aware of the protocol.

“Of course, I’ve got sanitizer stations set up now. That’s nice,” Hager said.

“I’m going to have extra employees,” Hager said. The restaurant received payroll protection money, Hager said, and she intends to use it to bring on as many people as she can.

David Carter, manager of Wanderoo Lodge and Gravel Bar, said the restaurant was closed for about three weeks during the pandemic before reopening to offer a limited carry-out menu. Limited dine-in will resume on Friday, May 15, Carter said. The hotel has been doing well, Carter said, but it’s been tough to keep the restaurant going. His number one concern, Carter said, is his employees.

“It’s important to have people work. We don’t want to lose anybody over this pandemic,” Carter said. “It really has been difficult having to be in this position where we have 13 full-time employees and now we’ve been reduced to about four. We’re trying to bring them back, but there has to be enough revenue to sustain overheard.”

Gravel Bar is known for its live music, Carter said, something that can’t happen under the new restrictions.

“That’s one of our main draws,” Carter said. “Although we can open and run our restaurant and run food out of there, we still can’t offer that community service. It is frustrating, to say the least.”

Carter thanked everyone who has ordered carry-out from the restaurant, saying he knows the community is dedicated to support local businesses.

“We appreciate the support. Every dollar counts,” Carter said. “We’re just trying to work through this so we can go back to serving everybody at our full capacity.”

Gabriel Basurto, manager of New Delhi Cafe, said he’s feeling the sting of not being able to offer live music, too. Basurto said New Delhi has been offering carry-out and delivery during the pandemic and resumed dine-in services on Monday, May 11.

“It’s definitely been a challenge,” Basurto said, “but we’re doing the best we can.”

Basurto said most dine-in service will take place outdoors, though there will be limited dine-in service inside the restaurant. Everyone will wear gloves and masks, Basurto said, and customers will be required to wear masks.

“If anybody doesn’t feel good, we’ll send them home,” Basurto said. “We’ll do our best to keep everybody safe — ourselves and the customers.”

Basurto said he hopes to keep the staff coming in.

“We’ve really done our best to keep it open even with very limited sales to keep our staff working and for the locals to have an option,” Basurto said. “There were not many restaurants open during this time. We were one of a few that were doing anything in town.”

Basurto said he’s grateful to the community for supporting New Delhi.

“We have plenty of locals that have supported us during this time,” Basurto said. “We would like to thank everybody that kept us going.”

Dori Burgess, co-owner of Red’s Pizzeria, Funnel Cake Factory and Honey Bee Bistro, said Red’s Pizzeria stayed open for carry-out when dine-in was closed. Burgess said all three establishments resumed operations on Monday, May 11.

“We’re going to try to be as normal as possible with the new requirements in mind,” Burgess said.

Burgess said she and her husband, Robert, gutted the Funnel Cake Factory and renovated it during the break. Honey Bee Bistro got a new paint job, Burgess said, and a deep clean.

“Business has been steady but by all means it wasn’t what I had last year for sure,” Burgess said. “We’ve made it work. We limited our menu. We stayed open to offer a service to the community.”

Katherine Zeller, who owns Cafe Amore, said she won’t be reopening for dine-in for some time. Instead, Zeller said, she will offer carry-out Thursday through Sunday.

“It doesn’t make sense to me to make a little bit of money with a lot more exposure and a lot of uncertainty,” Zeller said. “It’s interesting to try to make sound decisions when a virus is going around the whole planet. We’re all just trying to do the best we can.”

She continued, “Realistically, it’s never going to be what it was. We can’t go backward. We go forward. I’m going to reinvent myself. I’m changing the restaurant’s name to Cafe Amore Express.”

Zeller said she kept the restaurant closed for three weeks when the pandemic first hit.

“I felt that our responsibility as a community was to separate and stay at home and shelter in place,” Zeller said. “All the weeks I was open before that, we were only doing take-out. I felt comfortable doing what I was doing.”

It’s important for everyone to wear masks, Zeller said, and she’s requiring that all her employees do.

“We’re all wearing masks. I was wearing it for about a week before I was working,” Zeller said. “It’s not an option at work for anybody to not wear their mask.”

Zeller urged everyone to wear masks and practice self-care.

“We’re going to get through this if we’re careful getting through it,” Zeller said.

Hager agreed, saying everyone in the tourist industry should scale their expectations back a bit.

“If you have to keep an operation small and keep things controlled to keep us safe, you should,” Hager said.

Memorial Weekend is a good time to reopen, Hager said, but she doesn’t want to serve 500 people that weekend.

“I want to do 100. I want to make this a soft opening,” Hager said. “Let’s all just ease into this, just in case. We don’t want to have a full-blown pandemic again next month.”

Moyer said that’s exactly how the Crescent and Basin Park Hotels are handling the reopening process.

“We believe in a slow and cautious phase-in approach. We have been following the advice of the governor and paying very close attention to … what his experts are saying,” Moyer said. “Our employees are ready to return to work and our team is ready to come back.”

Moyer thanked everyone who ordered pizza from SkyBar when dine-in wasn’t an option.

“We very much appreciate everyone who has kept revenue into the hotel. Those individuals should know that by keeping revenue in the restaurant, it kept an employee working,” Moyer said. “I don’t think anybody in town made any money on to-go service, but by breaking even, you’re keeping employees working and I think that’s important.”

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