SALEM — Returning to normal looks different to everyone. For Diane Wolf, a downtown restaurant owner, that involves accepting that guests can't possibly wear masks to protect others.
"I fully recognize guests won't be wearing masks. How can you eat or drink with a mask on?" Wolf said.
"I think we'd need to have the tables at least 6-to-10 feet apart," added Wolf, who owns The Lobster Shanty, "and only family members or people who live in the same household together at the same time. I guess it's on them to decide who they're going to sit with."
This is the new reality slowly being established for businesses throughout the North Shore as they look to turn the lights back on from the now months-long COVID-19 shutdown.
Practically an anchor to downtown Salem's Artists' Row, The Lobster Shanty fills out a large shed-like space measuring about 15-by-30 feet. Half of the public space is filled by a U-shaped bar, while the rest typically has scattered tables before a set of doors leads to a recently built outside patio. It's the only business in Artists' Row that has actual insulation and a furnace, features that give the business more permanent residence in a space that transforms year to year.
the business is technically seasonal, with a liquor license that covers most of the year but doesn't cover Jan. 15 to April 1 — the same time frame that the other four non-winterized shacks along Artists' Row are generally closed. Shanty does serve food from time to time during that window for things like pop-ups, Wolf said.
But this year, things have been different. The good news here for many is that Shanty plans to reopen toward the end of this week.
"As of Wednesday we'll have been closed 120 days, the longest closure ever," Wolf said. "We budget to only be closed for 10 weeks, so we kind of skidded into the beginning of April on financial vapors, and then suddenly we couldn't open. That's when things got scary fast."
At the same time, reopening might not be as hard for a business overall. The same precautions North Shore residents are now adhering to are somewhat a way of life in the food business, according to Wolf.
"Food people, I guess, are already equipped to be around people safely," Wolf said. "I think the only difference now is 10 times more handwashing, and the masks are the most significant thing you'll see here."
There's also the issue of denying access to unruly patrons — something that retail stores might have more difficulty with than a restaurant of any size, Wolf suggested.
"Because we're a bar, we're used to telling people they can't come in for myriad reasons, be it no shoes or because they're belligerent, or they're already intoxicated from somewhere else," Wolf said. "I don't imagine a store is used to having a door person to monitor the behavior of people entering."
Still, how does a restaurant protect guests who literally can't wear masks? Especially Shanty, which Wolf admitted has historically stayed away from the take-out biz.
The answer, she said, is to adapt to the new world that exists today.
"Takeout has never really been our jam. The thing about the Shanty is the community and sitting at this horseshoe-shaped bar and talking across at each other," Wolf said. "The feedback I've been getting from people wanting to just get our food to go is just so amazing, because I thought people loved the Shanty because it's a shanty, not necessarily for my food."
Being said, when the Shanty reopens this week, it won't be the same — no matter how much of the business reopens and what waits for safer times.
"I had a phone call with a friend who lives in Wichita, Kansas. His restaurant opened last week, and I was asking him for best practices," Wolf said. What she got back was "things I didn't think of — like after every guest, you're cleaning your check presenters, you're cleaning your sugar caddies, cleaning disposable items, just all the little details we're going to need to think about going forward.
"It's going to be a learning curve."