BY KIM CHANDLER and JAY REEVES, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The sign at Chappy’s Deli proclaimed “DINING ROOM NOW OPEN.” But the scene was hardly normal as Alabama’s economy took another step toward reopening Monday despite an increasing number of coronavirus cases.
Mask-wearing servers took orders and waited on spaced-out tables at Chappy’s, a popular lunch spot in the capital city.
“This is the first couple hours being open, the first lunch. The customers who have come in have been super excited,” said Chappy’s owner Jeff Barranco.
Dine-in restaurants, bars, salons and gyms could reopen Monday — with rules on crowd limits and cleaning — as the state eased restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. Many kept their dining rooms closed, with chairs atop tables, but David Earnest enjoyed a meal at Chappy’s.
“It feels like I’m getting halfway normal again,” said Earnest. He was so excited to eat out again that he couldn’t decide on a meal and ordered two sandwiches — a club and a roast beef — as a splurge.
Many eateries did not have inside crowds, at least not yet.
Fife’s Restaurant, a meat-and-three lunch spot in downtown Birmingham, opened its dining room for the first time in weeks but the only customers were picking up phone orders and other takeout meals.
Inside, tables were spaced out and workers including Katelyn Lear were wearing masks. She said it may take a while for diners to return as usual because of the virus.
“People just aren’t ready yet,” Lear said during a break. A few blocks away, only a few customers ate lunch inside The Fish Market, a downtown seafood restaurant near the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
At Chappy’s, about a dozen people ate at spaced at tables — a fraction of the lunchtime crowds the popular eatery normally has — while many customers still opted for the car hop service with food brought to their cars.
“The way it left, the dining room slowly got slower over time and I think it’s going to do the same thing— start off a little slow and build momentum over a week or so,” Barranco said.
About 15 miles south of Birmingham at Shelby Mart, a strip shopping center in Pelham, 10 customers waited outside a side-by-side barber shop and beauty salon. Only one wore a protective mask, and not all were six feet apart.
While gyms could reopen under state rules, Birmingham’s downtown YMCA, a popular exercise spot for people who work in surrounding office buildings, said it would remain closed because of guidance from the county health agency to limit gatherings of more than 10 people. Many offices were still empty, anyway, as employees work from home.
Theaters, bowling alleys and other entertainment venues remain closed.
The partial opening came despite an upswing in the number of virus cases in Alabama.
As of Monday, about 10,000 people in the state had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and about 400 people statewide had died. State Health Officer Scott Harris said officials were trying to determine how much of the swelling caseload was linked to increased testing or increased disease.
While easing restrictions, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has encouraged people to remain cautious as they go about their daily activities.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin also urged caution, saying “the cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in our state.”
“If you don’t have to go out, continue to stay home. If you do have to go out, please practice social distancing, remember to wash your hands and remember to wear a face covering,” Woodfin wrote in a message Sunday.
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 illness including pneumonia, and death.
Reeves reported from Birmingham.