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Restaurants on Rockaway react to Covid restriction rollbacks

Most businesses take wait-and-see approach to new CDC guidance

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Although mask mandates were lifted last week for fully vaccinated New Yorkers, restaurant owners on Rockaway Avenue are saying “not so fast.” Many prefer to take a wait-and-see approach before revising rules that have been in place since last spring, and allowing patrons to enter their establishments without face coverings.

After more than a year of restrictions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that effective May 19, people who had received the necessary doses of the Covid-19 shot were no longer required to wear masks in most situations. Restaurants and private businesses, however, remain free to make their own rules. Concerned about customer safety and comfort with the new guidelines, eateries along the avenue are proceeding with caution before removing the “Mask Required” signs.

“I feel like it’s a good thing, but at the same time a bad thing,” Sandy Melendres, the manager and graphic designer of Itgen’s Ice Cream Parlour, said of the lifting of restrictions. “A lot of people are already coming in without a mask, but we ask for them to wear a mask because it does still make people feel uncomfortable.”

Melendres said that Itgen’s would keep its mask signage displayed, and staff would give masks to customers who come in without them. She plans to wait until the end of the year before revisiting mask rules. “I just want to give it more time    . . . for more people to get the vaccine,” she explained.

Melendres added that her staff continues to take precautions that were put in place at the height of the pandemic, including regular sanitizing of surfaces, utensils and condiment bottles.

Similarly, San Antonio Bakery and Restaurant doesn’t foresee abandoning mask-wearing protocols any time soon. The staff will still be required to wear them, and the restaurant keeps a supply at hand for customers who leave them behind, Ruben Guzman Jr., the owner’s son, said.

“We’re still requiring everyone to wear masks when they’re inside,” Guzman said. “People still feel unsafe, and it’s easier to just maintain a steady sense of safeness.”

Guzman noted that many customers still wear masks voluntarily, despite the new CDC recommendations, and he hasn’t heard any complaints about San Antonio’s policy. If a customer refuses to wear a mask, restaurant staff will ask to see a vaccination card or Excelsior pass.

“I just hope    . . . people are honest about the vaccines, if they have it or not,” Guzman said. “Some people don’t want to wear masks sometimes, but it’s to protect others as well.”

Nonetheless, other restaurants on Rockaway are looking forward to returning to the old normal as soon as possible. Vicky Sourgoutsis, co-owner of Mitchell’s, said she thought it was time for the mask mandate to be lifted as the weather gets warmer, adding that she isn’t bothered if customers go without them. While she said she planned to keep the mask sign on the door for a few more weeks, she won’t enforce a mask rule or ask to see vaccination cards.

“If they want to come in without wearing masks . . . I can’t force them to wear it,” Sourgoutsis said, referring to several instances in which customers made their non-mask preference clear. But the restaurant will continue to space tables out when practicable, and the staff will continue to wear masks for a while longer, she said.

Spartan Grill, which opened unofficially last week, is anticipating growing a new business in a post-Covid-19 world. Co-owner John Miller said they managed to “weather the storm” and worked through the pandemic to get the restaurant up and running. Its grand opening was scheduled for Saturday.

“We’re excited,” Miller said of the lifting of restrictions. “People want to come out.” A New York City Fire Department EMT during the pandemic, Miller said he would be comfortable in a mask-free environment because he had confidence in the effectiveness of the vaccines.

But when it comes to the customers, Spartan Grill’s other co-owner, Dino Vasilogiorgis, said he thought they might feel more comfortable if the restaurant required masks, and they might ask patrons to keep them on. “At least I know it will keep everybody safe,” Vasilogiorgis said.

There are also establishments that haven’t made final determinations, but are leaning toward erring on the side of caution when it comes to customers’ health and safety. Shanelle County, co-owner of Standard Pour, said that a decision on masks hadn’t been made yet at the coffee shop, which opened last October. County said she was looking forward to the sense of relief the lifting of restrictions would give patrons. Since the guidance is so new, though, she wanted to make sure the decision that’s ultimately made is best for both employees and customers.

“We’d rather be more cautious than anything as we look forward to the next steps,” County said. “It’s a serious discussion to make sure everyone feels comfortable and safe.”