TUPELO • Winter is coming for restaurants in Lee County. But this year, it will be more than just a foreboding pop culture TV reference.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic first arrived in Tupelo, restaurants in the city have faced two shelter-in-place orders, capacity restrictions and mask mandates. Now restaurants will have to survive through what is typically viewed as their slower business season on top of battling a deadly virus.
“The winter historically has always been our slowest days at the café, and we anticipate this season to be even more so with the virus trending in the direction that it is,” said Jason Hayden, the co-owner of Cafe 212 in Tupelo.
Cafe 212 and other businesses in the downtown area have turned to outdoor dining as a way to serve more customers, which health experts say is a safer option than in-person dining. But with cooler temperatures and a spike in COVID cases, restaurants will likely have to alter plans to continue serving guests.
“We honestly don’t have any options as the temperatures get colder outside,” Hayden said. “We are going to keep putting as many tables as we can outside for as long as we can, and when it rains or is too cold, we will have limited seating inside the café. Currently Fridays have been our busiest days and really the only day of the week we have seen possible seating issues arising.”
Some restaurants around the country have turned to installing tents and outdoor heaters to still serve customers during colder temperatures, but Mayor Jason Shelton said he and his office have not yet received requests from businesses to install such measures on public sidewalks. The second-term mayor said there is not a formal process for businesses to install things on public sidewalks, but the city would try to assist restaurants as much as possible.
“As long as it’s safe, anything the restaurant or business can do to survive during this hardship is basically allowable,” Shelton said.
Business will navigate these decisions at a time when Lee County is already experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, with its test positivity rate also being slightly elevated. This past week, state health officials reported around 329 new COVID-19 cases from Lee County and that around three additional people in the county have died from the virus.
Voz Vanelli, the owner of Vanelli’s Bistro in downtown Tupelo, is tentatively planning in January to offer different options for his customers during the winter season. He plans to utilize outdoor dining as long as weather permits, but also plans to open up spaced-out dining inside and expand to-go options, depending on the severity of the virus.
“The big thing is safety,” Vanelli said. “We want it to be safe for customers and our employees.”
Vanelli’s currently is placing all of its ingredients in separate containers, sanitizing surfaces multiple times a day and is using disposable items as much as possible to help mitigate any possible health risks.
The bistro will also have an employee-served buffet station and dozens of lasagnas, desserts, salads and family-sized pre-made meals available for individual purchase for customers who simply want to come and pick up food for what Vanelli calls a “quick-serve” basis.
Mary Olson, an employee at Vanelli’s, said she and employees have been planning to implement these different options for some time and assures customers that the employees will be wearing masks and preparing food safely.
Even though restaurants are again adapting to new changes and the future may look grim on the surface level, supporters of the downtown area believe that consumers will still turn out to support Tupelo businesses the best they can.
“I feel like people will support them, but there’s no benchmark for this,” said Debbie Brangenberg, the director of the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association. “I don’t think anybody knows in terms of what the consumer confidence will be.”
Brangenberg said she will work with any downtown business as best she can and encourages customers to adhere to local and statewide safety measures.
“We just hope that people will be as understanding as possible during this time,” she said.