As rules relax, are crowded Delaware beach bars back?
Don't get too excited about standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowded bar, singing duets with your best friend on the karaoke stage or hitting the dance floor with a beer in hand quite yet.
These may be sweet pre-COVID-19 memories, but they’re not yet a reality for Delaware’s beach bar scene.
Popular spots like The Starboard in Dewey Beach are already starting to see lines wrap around the building on weekends, and different bar owners say that many now-vaccinated customers are starting to return to their favorite haunts in droves.
But Gov. John Carney’s announcement Tuesday maintained one rule that some bar owners say makes the biggest difference: People must remain seated while at bars.
“When people are standing or dancing, it’s much more difficult to keep a distance, even at 3 feet distance,” said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health. “So, for right now, being seated in bars and restaurants is going to remain a requirement.”
After hearing about the state’s plans to lift capacity limits and reduce social distancing requirements to 3 feet by May 21, owners and managers agreed that this is another step in the right direction — even if it’s not exactly where they want to be.
“I’m excited about the changes this afternoon. I can’t say that anymore,” said Jimmy O’Conor, owner of Woody’s Dewey Beach. “I still would like to have our bars opened up, but I guess in due time we’ll get there.”
The new requirements will likely allow O’Conor to add a couple more tables to his outdoor deck, which he said has been very popular. Many others are relishing in the warmer weather and the promise of a busy summer.
Watching people smile as they sit outdoors and lift a cocktail to their lips, “that’s a refreshing thing to see,” said Starboard owner Steve "Monty" Montgomery.
“It feels as close to normal as we have felt in 14 months,” he said.
As Memorial Day approaches, the bars in Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach are preparing for these changes – and hoping for more lifted restrictions soon. But no matter what the latest protocols are, they want people to know they are here and ready to still offer some good times.
What the new rules mean for bars and restaurants
That moment when you walk off the beach and into a bar to order a drink, still wearing sandy flip flops and a sunhat? Yeah, that still won't be happening under the state's latest restrictions that start in a couple weeks.
Because people must be seated, they will likely have to wait for a hostess to find them a table – even if that high-top is pushed right up to the bar.
Owners and managers agree that the end to capacity limits is encouraging, but they’re still missing out when people cannot get up to stand or dance.
“Even if he went to 100% (capacity) right now, it doesn’t really affect me much until people can stand up at the bar,” O’Conor said. “That's the part that will really allow people to get back into the bar scene. I love being a restaurant, but I (also) love being a bar with a vibrant nightlife.”
Christopher Chandler, manager at The Purple Parrot, said the popular bar and grill on Rehoboth Avenue probably still cannot host karaoke nights or drag shows at this time.
But for restaurants and bars that thrive off a seated dining experience, the change from 6-foot to 3-foot social distancing will help them add more tables and seat more customers.
This could help restaurants reach almost 90% capacity, said Scott Kammerer, president of major restaurant company SoDel Concepts.
“It’s been a long 14 months, and it’s definitely great to hear that the state agrees with our assessment that restaurants are safe and can safely reopen,” he said.
These changes will be an even greater sigh of relief for those working in restaurants.
Restaurant workers have adapted with each change and enforced the state’s restrictions – from social distancing to mask-wearing – but this can often be an exhausting task, especially when Delaware’s rules differ from surrounding states.
“Being responsible for your customers’ actions is a very difficult and added job,” Chandler said. “Being babysitters wasn’t included in the job title.”
What to expect Memorial Day weekend
Some bars and restaurants at the beaches have significant waits every night, and employees are working 50-hour weeks, sometimes six or seven days of the week, just to keep up with the growing demand.
“Every weekend in April has already been like Memorial Day weekend,” Kammerer said.
As the demographics have changed at the Delaware beaches, and more people moved permanently into their second homes during the pandemic, the SoDel president said he has noticed that Memorial Day may no longer be the official start to summer that many are used to.
“In years past there was a very predictable ramp up to business at the beach, and the pandemic kind of threw that all off in that it really changed the dynamics at the beach,” he said.
So if people have to wait for a table or the service isn’t as quick as they remember, Kammerer joins others in reminding visitors and locals to be patient and enjoy the time they have eating and drinking at the beaches.
At The Starboard, Memorial Day weekend is typically the busiest of the year. While Montgomery said he’s not sure they will see pre-pandemic levels, he knows one thing for sure: This summer will certainly be busier than last.
With that comes added pressure on the staff and a reminder to have grace and patience for servers, even amid all the energy and enthusiasm to get back to the bars this summer.
“That weekend is going to be stressful depending on the level that we’re restricted,” Montgomery said.
Still, each owner and manager interviewed repeated a similar optimistic sentiment: They are ready. They are excited. And yes, they may be a little nervous.
But they are looking forward to people coming out and filling their outdoor tables and raising a glass to the start of summer.
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at email@example.com or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.