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Restaurants continue outdoor seating

Smithfield Station’s boardwalk looks a little different now that the weather’s getting colder.

A long, white tent with portable electric fans wired to the ceiling now spans the width of the restaurant’s waterfront outdoor dining area. The Station is one of several local restaurants planning to keep its outdoor seating open for business this fall and winter in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and finding innovative ways of doing so.

For owner Randy Pack, the solution was simple. “We bought and installed heaters,” he said.

On Nov. 13, Gov. Ralph Northam imposed new COVID-19 restrictions capping gatherings at no more than 25 people, but according to Pack, restaurants are currently allowed to continue seating at full capacity — indoors and outdoors — provided the tables are spaced at least six feet apart.

The social distancing itself does slightly reduce the restaurant’s seating capacity, but really all that’s changed is some private parties that were booked prior to the 25-person cap, Pack said.

Despite the cooler weather, people appear to feel safer outdoors. Demand for outdoor seating isn’t what it was this summer, Pack acknowledged, but it’s still “a lot more than it used to be” around this time of year, especially on nice days.

Pack didn’t want to speculate on whether further COVID-19 restrictions at the state or federal level were likely, in his opinion, but 30 miles south of Smithfield in the heart of downtown Franklin, Fred’s Restaurant owner David Rabil is predicting it’s only a matter of time before additional restrictions are ordered.

“The way the numbers are looking, I expect it any day,” Rabil said. “I really don’t see how it can not go back a step or two.”

Fred’s also offers outdoor dining and plans to keep its patio open this fall and winter. Rabil has bought some heaters to keep the patio tolerably warm on cold days.

“As long as folks want to go outside, we’ll let them go,” he said. “It’s really been a plus having that out there.”

Rabil’s definitely seen an uptick in demand for outdoor seating since it became an option on May 15 when Virginia entered Phase I of Northam’s reopening plan following a statewide stay-at-home order, and Fred’s carryout business has also “picked up quite a bit” during the now eight months Virginia has had to contend with COVID-19.

“We have been very blessed by the community,” Rabil said. “Folks are trying to stay home more and supporting whatever local business they can … we’re seeing more of the same people on a more regular basis.”

“We’re still not seeing the elderly who used to come in a lot,” he added. “I think they still probably have a fear of coming out.”

During the early days of the pandemic, Smithfield Station and Fred’s both had to cut staff due to the stay-at-home order’s impact on business — with the Station laying off about 95% of its staff.

“Employees went two months without any paycheck,” Pack said.

But now both restaurants have returned to near-normal staffing levels, though at Fred’s, employees are still working shorter hours.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to stay open and keep these folks employed [this winter],” Rabil said.