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Some restaurants in Jefferson County reopen their dining rooms

While some eateries have opened their doors, others aren't ready to yet.

Istanbul Grill in Fairfield can reopen its dining room, but the owners do not plan to because they feel it’s still not safe. (Photo submitted)
Istanbul Grill in Fairfield can reopen its dining room, but the owners do not plan to because they feel it’s still not safe. (Photo submitted)
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FAIRFIELD — Fairfield’s restaurants are slowly returning to normal.

All restaurants closed their dining rooms in mid-March after a proclamation from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. Most restaurants stayed open and switched to an exclusively carry out or delivery service. As the pandemic wore on, a few had to close down altogether, like Arandas Mexican Restaurant in mid-April and Green Gourmet later that month. Both of those reopened in mid-May. Another local restaurant, La Hacienda, closed completely on April 1, and just reopened earlier this week.

Earlier this month, Reynolds announced that restaurants in select counties, including Jefferson, could reopen their dining rooms, but only at 50 percent capacity, and only if they took steps to mitigate the spread of coronavirus such as making diners sit apart from each other.

However, not all restaurants are ready to reopen to foot traffic. David Foraker, who owns Istanbul Grill with his wife, said that even though the state is allowing him to open his dining room, he has no plans to. He thinks it’s too early to reopen, and fears a second wave of the virus coming later this summer. Instead, he plans to continue doing carryout only.

“Going back to normal life would be good, but we can’t do it,” Foraker said. “When I open, not only will Jefferson County people come, but people from other towns, and I don’t know if they’re infected.”

Foraker said it’s important to acknowledge the devastation the virus has already wrought.

“Over 100,000 people in the U.S. have died,” he said. “Just imagine taking Fairfield, Washington, Mt. Pleasant, Ottumwa, and Burlington all off the map.”

Foraker said he understands that some restaurants are eager to fully reopen. He said it’s up to each restaurant owner to use their best judgment on whether reopening makes sense. He doesn’t look down on those that are reopening. In fact, he referred to them as “brave,” but at the same time, he didn’t feel it was the right call for his business. Plus, he said that his clients feel the same way.

“I talked with our customers, and 90-95 percent of them said not to open the dining room,” he said.

Like nearly all restaurants, Istanbul Grill has been hurt by the pandemic and resulting economic slowdown. Foraker estimated that his revenue has fallen 50-60 percent since mid-March.

Mike Papazoglou, who owns Kokomo’s by Mike and Nikki, said the transition to an all carryout and delivery model was tough for him, too.

“Curbside pickup and delivery is only about 20 percent of the normal business,” he remarked. “Everybody’s revenue fell, and not just in my restaurant but all other businesses.”

Shortly after the pandemic hit southeast Iowa in mid-March, Papazoglou could see the toll it was already taking on the economy as businesses began laying off workers. He organized a day to “pay it forward” where the restaurant served a free meal. Between 3-6 p.m. that day, the restaurant gave away 1,200 meals.

“We had a line of cars a mile long waiting for meals,” Papazoglou recalled. “The community has helped us a lot over the years. At a time when everybody was losing their job and panicking, we thought the best thing to do was offer a free meal.”

Even as business slowed down in the ensuing months, Papazoglou said he did not lay off any staff.

“We tried to keep everybody at work because they need a paycheck to survive,” he said.

Since the governor’s proclamation in mid-May, Kokomo’s has reopened its dining room. Only ever other table can be occupied to ensure diners remain 6 feet apart. The servers wear gloves and masks, and are taking all the safety precautions they can.

At this point, Papazoglou said the government’s restrictions aren’t what’s holding back his business. Even if all the rules were lifted and the restaurant could return to 100 percent capacity, he doesn’t think the public is ready to come out.

“The younger crowd will come out because they’re not too worried, but the older crowd, in their 50s and up, are scared,” he said. “You can open your stores all you want, but it doesn’t mean people are going to come. We can’t flip a switch and make it go back to normal, and I don’t see it going back to normal until probably next year.”