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Utah reopens bars, restaurants to relief, anxiety

Updated May 1, 2020 - 3:44 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Shani and Sergei Oveson were excited to reopen dine-in seating Friday at their small downtown Salt Lake City restaurant that saw an 85 percent drop in sales since mid-March, when eateries across Utah were limited to offering takeout orders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

However, the couple still has modest financial expectations as Utah and some other states allow certain businesses to reopen as the U.S. begins to emerge from its self-imposed, hunkering down phase of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Ovesons anticipates no more than a 25 percent bump in business at their Ramen Bar, which will have only half of its usual seating capacity due to social distancing requirements.

The Ovesons are also a little nervous about their own health, even though they plan to regularly disinfect everything and require masks for themselves and their five employees. Customers will be asked to wear masks as much as possible. The couple, with two daughters, ages 7 and 11, also posted a sign telling anyone with a fever, cough or body aches not to come inside.

“We’re really excited to be open, but at the same time we’re scared that the virus will reignite and we’ll have to close again which would be so hard for us,” said Shani Oveson, 36. “Owning your own business can be so scary financially, we have to risk getting sick to survive.”

Under Utah’s phased reopening plan, hair salons, gyms, restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen Friday.

The Cheers to You bar in Salt Lake City opened for one hour Friday at midnight to celebrate its return. That brief time was “a straight-up learning curve” that owner Bob Brown said made him realize he needs to hire two or three new people just to enforce social distancing guidelines. That’s in addition to hiring three new people to replace workers who aren’t comfortable coming back to work, he said.

Brown has laid out a grid of colored tape on his bar floor directing people where they can walk and stand.

He has a no-touch thermometer he’s required to use to take his employees’ temperature and he’s considering using it to test customers before they come in.

People are supposed to wear masks when they’re not sipping their drinks, and groups should be limited to no more than 10 people, each separated by 6 feet, he said.

Though people so far seem accommodating, the situation will require a wholesale change of social norms, he said.

Brown anticipates getting back about 30 percent of the business he had before the pandemic while having to spend more money on staff to meet health requirements.

He thinks he’ll be able to survive since he’s been in business for 22 years and owns the building where the bar is located, but he predicted newer bars will have to go out of business.

“The tough times financially haven’t been felt yet,” Brown said. “They are in front of us.”

Mike Turner, 30, was ecstatic about meeting his friend for a beer at Brown’s bar on Friday afternoon. He has been going to an office each day during the pandemic because his technology job was deemed essential, but he missed being able to unwind with friends.

“Emotionally it has been pretty stressful,” Turner said. “Drinking at home is so different. I love being at home, I love my family but being at a bar and just chilling out with your friends, talking about stupid stuff is just nice.”

The London native wears a mask, washes his hands every 20 minutes and recognizes that the threat of getting the virus is far from over. But going to work every day has helped made him comfortable being out of the house.

That state has reported 46 deaths and about 4,800 cases of coronavirus. Utah has the fourth-lowest rate of deaths per 100,000 people among states and the sixth-highest rate of people tested per 1,000, according to The COVID Tracking Project.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe life-threatening illness, including pneumonia, and death.

“I’m not too worried about it,” Turner said.

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