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You don't want to cook tonight - maybe you just need to get out of the house - but don't know where to go. Are they wearing masks? Are they cleaning? Are tables spaced 6 feet apart?
The shift on Aug. 3 to social distancing, cleaning and mask use guidelines becoming mandatory in restaurants statewide may help to ease the burden of wondering whether staff members are following the rules, but a statewide program that focuses on positive reinforcement for adherence may make your decision easier between your favorite restaurant or yet another pizza from your freezer.
Palmetto Priority is a voluntary but formal commitment restaurateurs statewide can make to provide a clean and safe environment for their staff and customers to demonstrate extensive precautions they're taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As of Tuesday, Aug. 11, there were 50 participating restaurants in Sumter, Clarendon and Lee counties, ranging from fast-food joints to locally owned restaurants and chain eateries.
"We take it extremely seriously. We want to do it the right way," said Jim Mayes, co-owner of Carolina Grove, a Palmetto Priority participant.
Restaurants that choose to participate in the program complete a checklist of operational assurances, participate in required free online education and participate in a DHEC limited-scope food safety inspection. Those that complete the checklist and sign the commitment earn an endorsement of the program, a sticker they can post on the doors and windows of their establishments to promote to customers.
Carolina Grove is one of Sumter's newest restaurants, so it evolved from an infancy that was almost immediately baptized by the pandemic. It opened Jan. 22, closed March 23 and reopened two months later with a new menu and expanded outdoor patio.
"One way you learn to run a business is in the bad times," said Mayes, who got into the food industry with his father, with whom he shares a name, after his retirement from the insurance banking industry after 22 years.
The S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association oversees the consumer-driven program by providing patrons with the opportunity to share their experience, both positive and negative, through a survey. The form is used to provide feedback if a restaurant is not honoring its commitment or to share how well it is doing.
In addition to the inspection and educational portions of the commitment, restaurants must follow minimum standards outlined by the state's reopening guidelines, such as posting signage to promote social distancing, requiring employees to wear a face covering, maintaining 6 feet of space between parties, providing menus that are single-use, digital or disinfected between guests, providing condiments and glassware upon request and placing an attendant at buffets to serve items, among others.
According to a survey of consumers in South Carolina about their perspective on issues related to the pandemic conducted by Columbia-based regional marketing firm Chernoff Newman, nearly 75% of 500 largely metro-based respondents said they’re more likely to visit an establishment is the business provides details on the steps it is taking to ensure the safety of its customers and employees.
Tables inside Carolina Grove, which is built and decorated to instill a feel of a contemporary Southern home and "Grandmamma's kitchen," are at 50% capacity. All staff members wear gloves and masks, and menus are one-time use. Staff members all took the training course, Mayes said.
Whether you're stopping in for a beer on the back patio, sitting inside to order salmon or shrimp and grits or taking out crab cakes, steak, fried pickles and some homemade dessert, you'll see signs plastered and posted with information about the virus, as per program guidelines.
Not participating in the program doesn't mean the restaurant is breaking rules. The voluntary program is not a regulation or law.
While Palmetto Priority has been a chance to promote safety for new restaurants that may want to prove their quality like Carolina Grove, established eateries have also signed up to stand apart amid uncertainty that follows a novel coronavirus pandemic.
Shoney's of Sumter has switched its business plan every time a new regulation or executive order comes out of the capital, so signing up for Palmetto Priority was a natural next step for Steve Cochran and his team.
The family style restaurant reopened its buffet when it was allowed to and provided gloves for all customers, but since Aug. 3, they have closed the buffet and switched to a cafeteria-type service model. Staff members stand behind the buffet and serve diners.
"A lot of customers like it, but a lot also don't like it. We try to explain we're just following the mandate," Cochran said.
Staff have adapted to the changing times. First, they set up tables outside when that was all that was allowed. When inside dining reopened, they stopped serving tables in the parking lot because they needed the handicap spaces.
Now, they recently opened a drive-through for the first time ever. With a soft opening last week, Cochran said they are currently only serving lunch and dinner through the window until they can train and add enough staff to run it during breakfast.
"It's one of the only places," he said, "to get country cooking out of a drive-through that's not fast food."
Palmetto Priority participants in Sumter, Clarendon and Lee counties
*Restaurant — Cuisine — Address*
To search which restaurants are in the program, leave feedback or find out more information, go to https://palmettopriority.com/.
Last updated Aug. 11. If you own a restaurant in Sumter, Clarendon or Lee County that has been credentialed for Palmetto Priorty, email email@example.com to add it to the list, which we will update here and at www.theitem.com/coronavirus.
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