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The Reopening Has Begun. What’s It Like Out There?

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Mint Indian Bistro
Mint photo by Brent Holmes; Cowabunga Bay photo by Christopher Smith

Mint Indian Bistro owner Kris Parikh, right, and Chef Manoj Dhamala. Mint Indian Bistro recently began dine-in service as part of the state's Phase 1 reopening plan.

At Mint Indian Bistro on East Flamingo, the checklist is complete. Owner Kris Parikh has followed all the state’s guidelines on reopening, and then some. At Mint, the servers wear masks, table seating is spread out well over six feet apart, reservations are required, and its popular lunch buffet has been replaced by “bottomless lunch platters” delivered to your table on disposable plates. Mint is one of many local businesses that have returned or plan to return soon to their traditional services — in modified form — since Gov. Sisolak announced Phase 1 reopening could begin May 9.  Parikh says business so far has been slow but steady.

“Right now, we’re seeing just immediate families come out to dine together. People aren’t coming out with friends just yet.” (He jokes that people holding off on visiting restaurants are missing out — this is the probably the cleanest they’ve ever been.) 

Masks. Single-use menus. Limited seating. Plastic barriers. No waiting in the vestibule. The world of the “new normal” that local businesses find themselves in isn’t just about following the state rules. It’s just as much about the art of educating and reassuring cautious customers as they tiptoe back to something resembling their old pastimes and pleasures.  Going above and beyond the requirements seems to be standard practice among businesses hoping to woo a skittish public. For instance, at Mint’s Durango and Flamingo location, the restaurant can hold 327 people, but Parikh caps it at well below the state’s 50 percent capacity requirement.

“We’ll only seat about 90 people maximum, and we seat them at the edges of the room, so we’re at something more like 12 to 15 feet of social distance," he says. "Customers seem to appreciate the added effort. They have to feel comfortable.” 

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‘Going overboard is a good policy’
Beli Andaluz Private Salon reopened May 9. Because it’s a high-end hair salon that only serves three clients at a time, social distancing was already a de facto practice. But the personal touches — upon walking through the door, you’d typically be greeted with a hug and a glass of champagne — had to be put on hold. Clients now receive a text message ahead of their appointment that lays out the new protocol: Please wear a mask, wait in your car until we text you to come in, and wash your hands when you enter.

“Usually our clients come in, sit on the couch, chit-chat, enjoy some champagne,” says manager Jennifer Bressler. “We’ve had to obviously limit that full experience, but it’s all for the sake of everyone’s health and safety.” Salon owner Beli Andaluz thinks the fact that the majority of their clients are longtime customers — "They've really become friends," says Andaluz — has smoothed any jitters they might have about getting a cut and color in post-pandemic Vegas.

Men’s barber shop Noble Wolf Barbers reopened May 11, and owner Roxy Collins says their appointment book quickly filled up too — and clients are fine with new features such as plastic shields between stations. 

“I was really careful during the shutdown. I basically stayed in my apartment, and really only went to the grocery store. I was a little nervous about what (reopening) would be like, but that quickly went away,” says Collins. “Everyone looks like they’re in a post-apocalyptic movie with the masks, but it’s been great.”

Shane Huish is hoping to see plenty of families when Henderson water park Cowabunga Bay hopes to reopen in Phase 2. Photo by Christopher SmithCowabunga Bay reopens … well, someday. “Let me throw a dart at a board — that’s how much of an idea I have right now,” says Huish, a partner in the water park attraction. Not that Cowabunga isn’t preparing to reopen, it’s just that his target of opening during Phase 2 depends on whether there’s a resurgence of the virus during Phase 1. Huish hopes to reopen by June 1. And when Cowabunga Bay does open, water park aficionados can expect to see hand-washing stations, plentiful hand sanitizer, and lots of wellness-check signs. Huish adds that they’ve doubled the janitorial staff on hand to clean and sanitize everything from inner tube handles to table tops. “Going overboard to make people feel comfortable seems to be a good policy,” Huish says. 

Marketing to customers about “going overboard” is key. Popular Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam is gearing up to reopen May 25, taking the extra time to build in messaging about their new hygiene protocol in their reservation system as well as their revamped website. Lotus co-owner Penny Chutima says their more cautious, deliberate approach mirrors her sense that the public is being cautious and deliberate about going out again.

“Even I haven’t been going out to restaurants (that opened on May 9). I feel like we all don’t know what the protocol is yet,” says Chutima. “We’re not rushing to open.” She opted instead to take her time, monitoring news coverage from Taiwan and Japan to take notes on their reopening prep. Lotus is employing thermal cameras — the same that Wynn properties plan to use, Chutima says — to check customers’ temperatures, as well as the now-standard slate of changes that includes spaced seating, masks on employees, and plastic shielding around the hostess stand. 

Sparrow + Wolf owner Chef Brian Howard is taking even more time, aiming for a June 1 opening date. He says he doesn’t just want his restaurant to merely check the boxes and react to the reality of the virus, but rather consider how he might creatively — and profitably — adapt.

“Are we still a seven-day dinner restaurant when we come back? Do we do pop-ups? Do we incorporate a lunch program? Does the private dining room become a ‘friend zone’? I want to reset,” he says. “I want a future-forward plan versus a COVID-forward plan.” To be sure, the reopened Sparrow + Wolf will have things like QR code menus and a “sanitation czar,” but Howard is also considering how post-pandemic practices like social distancing might be leveraged to foster an ambience of intimacy. 

‘The precipice of ruin’?
But innovation and adaptation can only go so far. The necessary burdens of the Phase 1 rules do not fall on all businesses equally. Retail stores and personal services seem better positioned to resume more readily than restaurants, which face restrictions that cut painfully close to their profit models. How does a restaurateur make up the customer volume when seating is capped at 50 percent capacity?

“We saw an uptick on Mother’s Day, but our volume is eight to 10 percent of what it used to be,” says Parikh with Mint Indian Bistro. When a reluctant public does eventually come out, a constantly half-full dining room might not keep a restaurant out of the red.

A more blunt warning came from restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau, CEO of Blau + Associates and owner of Honey Salt restaurant. She was a panelist on a May 14 webinar organized by the Vegas Chamber titled, “Saving Restaurants and Your Safety — Bringing Business Dinners Back.”

“The independent restaurant business is on the precipice of ruin,” she said. “Fifty percent capacity is untenable. I can’t pay my landlord 50 percent. I can’t pay my chef 50 percent.” Blau brought up the stark truism that restaurants operate on thin profit margins to start with, and wondered how long independent restaurants could sustain beneath the Phase 1 rules. 

Many independent restaurants can’t afford to wait, but it may be a waiting game anyway. According to a May 7 Review-Journal poll that asked people how comfortable they are visiting a restaurant, movie theater, or casino after restrictions are lifted, 48 percent said they’d be “somewhat uncomfortable” or “very uncomfortable,” while 42 percent said they’d be “somewhat comfortable” or “very comfortable.” Nationally, that discomfort is more pronounced. According to an early April Gallup poll, 70 percent of respondents said they would “wait to see what happens with the coronavirus before resuming” normal activities after reopening. 

Then again, maybe all it takes is a little reassurance. Jennifer Polito, a local professional who owns Jenerate PR, might be a textbook example of the wait-and-see consumer who was still sheltering in place — and then was persuaded to dine out.

“During the shutdown, (my husband and I) were very diligent about wearing face masks, we limited our interactions, had our groceries delivered and did food delivery or pickup when we wanted to eat out,” she says. 

But when she heard The Capital Grille in the Fashion Show Mall reopened, she booked a reservation for May 11. The dinner was everything she’d hoped — not just the food and the service, but the protocol. “Everyone was very observant of hygiene — wiping down surfaces, wearing masks, spacing diners out. It all felt very comfortable.”

And best of all, the sparsely populated dining room meant she and her husband got one of the best tables in the house — by a window overlooking the Strip.