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Virus Restrictions Lift, But Most — Not All — Tulsa Restaurants Say Dining Rooms Will Remain Closed

Libby Billings courtesy Libby Billings; Thomas Hunter courtesy Oklahoma Restaurant Association
Libby Billings (left), owner of Elote, Roppongi, and The Vault in downtown Tulsa, said she would "absolutely not" be reopening her dining rooms Friday. Thomas Hunter, owner of Ricardo's Mexican Grill in midtown Tulsa, said "it's time to get open."

Following prolonged mandated closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, and with the blessings of both Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and a reluctant Mayor G.T. Bynum, Tulsa restaurants will be permitted starting Friday to welcome guests back to eat in their dining rooms.

Not too many are seizing that opportunity, though.

"Absolutely not," said restaurateur Libby Billings, whose downtown Tulsa eateries include The Vault, Roppongi, and Elote. 

"I'm not willing to put my employees' or my customers' lives at risk," Billings said. "I think waiting a little bit longer would be a safer bet."

Billings said that while the virus has devastated her ledgers, federal loans through the Small Business Administration's Paycheck Protection Program can keep her afloat without needing to rush into what may be the wrong decision. 

"Waiting a month is not going to cause me to shut down my businesses, but it could save me a lot of money, and it could save a lot of lives," Billings said, "so I'm going to stick with that."

The majority of Tulsa restaurants reached by phone on Thursday said their dining rooms would remain closed Friday despite the eased restrictions. The Tulsa Regional Chamber and the Oklahoma Restaurant Association each confirmed that was, in fact, the general trend.

But Tulsans willing to forgo the recommendations of most public health experts, who worry the governor's phased reopening is both too soon and moving too rapidly, will have options for lunch and dinner.

Thomas Hunter owns Ricardo's Mexican Restaurant in midtown Tulsa, which will open for its first post-closure seated lunch service at 11 a.m. Friday.

"I feel that we are ready, our staff has been trained, and we are ready to start this phase of bringing in some guests and allowing them to dine in our restaurant," Hunter said. 

Hunter said the restaurant is taking a number of precautions. Staff members who have direct contact with customers, like servers, will be required to wear face coverings. The restaurant has put a large number of its tables and chairs in storage, Hunter said, to more easily facilitate physical distancing. And the restaurant is asking staff and customers who have interacted with anyone experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19, like cough or fever, or who have those symptoms themselves, to stay home. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned that the virus can be transmitted by people experiencing no symptoms.)

"I feel that we will not get back to normal until we can get a vaccine. So as long as we stay social distancing, don't go out if you're sick, and continue to sanitize — and we've really ramped up our sanitizing of tables and chairs and menus after each use — I think it's time to do it," Hunter said. "It's time to get open."

"We have a lot of people who are ready to eat out," Hunter said.

Hunter said the Tulsa Health Department had visited the restaurant and given him the go-ahead. Dr. Bruce Dart, the department's executive director, said last week that Governor Stitt's reopen was "too early," and this Wednesday noted that the city does not meet federal recommendations for reopening because the rate of new infections is not declining.

Hunter said a major part of his decision was based on what he said were financial hardships faced by his staff.

"Our employees need to pay their bills, they need to feed their families, they need to get their car fixed," Hunter said. "When you stop the economy for this long, it's going to have a longlasting effect."

"But as long as they're practicing 'COVID etiquette,' I think that we can safely start operating restaurants and other stores to get the economy back rolling," Hunter said. 

Billings, the restaurateur who will keep her establishments closed for table service, does agree that the financial difficulties caused by the virus are real and severe, but that reopening comes with its own economic risk.

"It is scary for us, because reopening a restaurant has a lot of costs associated with that," Billings said. It's going to cost thousands of dollars to repurchase all the food, and if this ends up going back to a government shutdown in a few weeks or months, that could cost us a lot more money. So for right now, we're just playing it safe."

In a model frequently cited by the White House, a team of researchers from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Modeling and Evaluation had previously estimated that the earliest possible date Oklahoma could safely ease social distancing restrictions would not be until June 17th. As of Wednesday, the scientists have removed Oklahoma from their list of predictions because of the governor's order; their most recent update says that "the risk for more COVID-19 cases – and potentially deaths – could increase due to increased interaction among individuals."

At 33 deaths, Tulsa County now has the most confirmed coronavirus-related fatalities of any county in Oklahoma, according to the State Department of Health. Statewide, at least 222 people are known to have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. 3,618 positive cases have been confirmed.

Last week, Dr. George Monks, the head of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, told Public Radio Tulsa that the governor's plan was "probably premature," adding that, regardless of whether it was allowed, he would not be eating in restaurant dining rooms "in the foreseeable future" due to the risk of the coronavirus pandemic. Reached by phone on Thursday, Monks said he stands by that statement.

"Not for a few weeks, at least," but added that it's a personal decision for each family.

"The reality is that this is what's happening, so we have to do it in the safest way possible," Monks said. "At some point we were going to need to reopen things, and I agree with the Tulsa Health Department guidelines." 

Other Tulsa restaurants opening for dine-in service on Friday include Ti Amo Ristorante Italiano's downtown location; Trey's Bar and Grill in southeast Tulsa; and Redrock Canyon Grill in south Tulsa. 

Chris joined Public Radio Tulsa as a news anchor and reporter in April 2020. He’s a graduate of Hunter College and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, both at the City University of New York.
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