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More vaccinations, more lenient laws leading to semblance of normalcy for some local restaurants

SALISBURY — There are some days when the parking lot of Palms Grill and Pizzeria is full, the inside of the restaurant is buzzing with activity and the patio is filled with patrons. 

That’s when life feels normal to Marjel Tania, the restaurant’s owner.

“There’s days where it feels like (COVID-19) is a thing of the past, as far as being back to the old days,” Tania said.

Not every day feels like they did pre-pandemic, he said, but those cherished days are starting to become more frequent.

“It’s definitely better than it was last year, I’ll tell you that,” Marjel said. “We’ve been waiting for these days.”

There are a variety of reasons why Marjel is seeing his roughly 160-seat restaurant on West Innes Street return to some semblance of normalcy. Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper once again increased the indoor dining capacity in restaurants from 50% to 75% and is allowing outdoor dining to increase to 100%. 

While the increased capacity limits are helping, Marjel said, the increasing number of people who are vaccinated is probably a bigger factor in people returning to his eatery. Over 50 million Americans have been fully vaccinated. In Rowan County, at least 27,410 have been partially vaccinated and 19,216 have been fully vaccinated.

“I think that’s the main thing really is the vaccinations,” Marjel said. “Having the 75% (capacity) is really good too.”

The recent stimulus checks and usual tax returns are likely factors as well, he said.

With more people vaccinated, especially older adults who were in one of the first groups to receive their vaccines, Marjel said he has noticed a return of some regular customers.

“Some of our elderly clients that were big-time regulars, who came three to four times a week, we lost a few of them for the past six to seven months,” Marjel said. “In the last couple months, at least 10-15 individuals have come back and have gone back to their routine.”

Martha Readling has been coming to Palms Grill and Pizzeria since before Marjel and his wife, Sevinia, took ownership in 2019. The restaurant’s menu, she said, always had gluten-free options for her, vegetarian options for her son and heart-healthy options for her husband.

Readling and her family visited the restaurant every Friday for years, but they stopped eating in-person at the beginning of the pandemic. Once she and her family grew more comfortable, they started coming back, but still eat outside on the patio when they can.

She’s thrilled to be back.

“I could get up and do a dance, that’s how wonderful it is,” Readling said.

Joe Sims, the owner of Ivan’s Restaurant on Old Mocksville Road, is witnessing a similar phenomenon as Marjel.

“We’re starting to see some of our elderly guests come back that have now gotten their shots,” Sims said. “Getting customers back that I haven’t seen in over a year.”

Restaurant owners are excited to see some of their most beloved clients return, but it seems the customers are just as happy to be back to dining in person.

“I had one (customers) say to me today that it was some therapy they needed for a long time,” Sims said.

There are still some restrictions and customer habits that haven’t gone back to normal. Health and safety protocols still limit restaurants like Ivan’s from hosting large groups together.

“No more than 10 can eat together and we have groups on the weekend, especially during the holidays, of 30 to 40 people,” Sims said. “It hurts us, especially for Easter weekend where we’ll have families of 18. That’s still frustrating to tell people that we can only seat them at two separate tables.”

Jay Owen, the owner of College Barbecue, said his business has remained steady throughout the pandemic, likely because of the restaurant’s robust drive-thru. The increased seating capacity and the number of people being vaccinated, Owen said, hasn’t changed his bottom line in a noticeable way. He is still dealing with another pandemic-caused dilemma: supply shortages.

“Sales wise, I’m not concerned at all,” Owen said. “One of our biggest concerns right now is the food supply.”

During the pandemic, he’s scrambled to find everything from ketchup to chicken wings. While the food supply chain has somewhat rebounded, he said, there are still surprising delays. Like all restaurateurs, he’s doing what he can to make it through.

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