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In the year+ since the pandemic shuttered a number of  restaurants and held the rest to take-out only, foot traffic, when it did start to come back, held mostly to outdoor patios. But since COVID-19 vaccines have ramped up and more people are feeling less trepidation about being in an enclosed area, restaurants are beginning to open up their dining rooms — because people are finally feeling more comfortable in going out for food and drinks. 

It didn't happen overnight

Haley Grugel, bartender at Trullium in the Grove Hotel, said via an email interview that it's been a revolving open and closed case since last summer when some restaurants began limited inside service, adhering to whatever current health restrictions were at the time. She watched as establishments would open back up one day then close back down the next.

Grugel resumed work in June when business was still slower. And hovering over everything, of course, was the spectre of COVID-19. With reopening came new health policies and procedures, as well as a sort of reckoning, especially for people in the service industry.

“I accepted from an early point of reopening that exposure was inevitable and I'd rather create a good enjoyable dining experience for my customers than be fearful of every person that comes in,” said Grugel. Currently, all restaurant service industry workers wear a mask and do the best they can when it comes to keeping the establishment open.

“Nobody enjoys the mask," said Grugel, "but I've had to wear it for over a year now, sometimes working double shifts — and I'm not complaining. It's what we have to do right now so that the service industry doesn't die out and I can have a job.” 

Coming Back To Life

Hamza Ishaq is the General Manager at Taj Mahal in downtown Boise. He said he has noticed the downtown area coming back to life over the last few months. “Now that things are opening back up we have noticed a dramatic increase in foot traffic in the downtown area," Ishaq said. "People feel more comfortable being out which has helped business overall."

Ishaq and his family own and operate the restaurant. Getting creative when the closures happened, Ishaq said his family relied on take-out orders and phone apps to stay afloat. He's relieved that since re-opening the inside dining area, he has noticed that overall, people seem to be respectful and follow the guidelines the restaurant has in place. Taj Mahal keeps up with all the up-to-date distancing, sanitation and limited-capacity guidelines, the latter of which has forced turning away guests at times. But Ishaq does think there has been a shift lately, that things may be finally turning around.

“I’m definitely feeling a lot more confident in serving now," he said. As more and more people get the vaccine things are beginning to feel somewhat normal again. We have noticed an improvement in business overall since. I myself got the vaccine and I’m looking forward to how things will pan out these next few months,” Ishaq said.

Being cautiously optimistic

With more and more vaccines now being administered and with spring and summer upon us — more people are likely inclined to go out. But it’s still a question to many: does it feel safe? Is it safe? According to the most recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, fully-vaccinated people are advised to continue to take precautions if indoor dining — wear a mask except when eating and drinking, stay socially distanced from others and if possible, order from an online menu.

Mike Farnam from Boise said he struggles with health issues including auto-immune diseases and considers himself in the "high risk" category. He got the vaccine as soon as he could and recently went to a restaurant for the first time — Bittercreek.

Farnam said in an email interview he was very impressed with the restaurant's health and safety rules and procedures. He felt very "at ease" and was able to enjoy himself with a couple of his friends. And he said he isn't at all worried about being around others who are complying with the health guidelines; but he is worried about being around those who don't.

“I am still very nervous," said Farnam. "Between the people that still ignore all the rules to help keep everyone safe by not wearing masks and the way that employees are treated by those same people by just doing their job as well as all the people who just refuse to get vaccinated, there is a lot to worry about.” 

Daniela Lopez, an "essential worker" at Albertsons said she has seen "so much" in the last year around how things unraveled throughout the pandemic. Lopez has been careful all along and only recently dined in at a restaurant.

“It kind of felt weird at first especially because it had been my first time going to a restaurant since COVID. All the employees wore masks and kept their distance when they could," Lopez said. "I know it’ll take some time but I’m just ready for things to get back to normal.” 

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