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Restaurant buffet customers can serve themselves again, Ivey says

Buffet rules pandemic

Commercial buffet tables such as the one illustrated here are now accessible by customers, but with strict usage rules enforced, according to Gov. Kay Ivey's office.

A pair of elderly patrons at No. 1 China Buffet had a half-minute’s worth of trouble putting on plastic gloves during the lunch rush Saturday, just a few minutes after noon. 

Staff distributed the gloves as customers entered and had their temperatures checked for signs of COVID-19. One of the Lenlock restaurant’s employees — a young, bright-eyed woman  — stopped to help the couple put them on. The gloves, a requirement at the restaurant since Gov. Kay Ivey amended her “Safer At Home” orders on Aug. 27 to allow buffet customers to serve themselves, were “large” and “nitrile,” according to the grey boxes holding them. In practical terms, the gloves were plastic and had to be peeled open at the wrist, a challenge beyond the tired digits of the aged man and woman. 

After a few moments and a few laughs with the worker, the couple got their gloves on and pulled up their face masks, another dining requirement in Alabama. 

“They’re not so easy to get into,” the woman said, as she left her booth to head to the buffet. And then, of the employee: “She’s a sweetheart.” 

Restaurants throughout Calhoun County picked up Ivey’s call to return to near-normal operations; in prior months, buffet-based restaurants such as No. 1 China have had to serve patrons in a cafeteria-style arrangement. Patrons would point at food behind plexiglass shields covering buffet bars, and employees scoop out their guess at the desired portions. But now the shields have come off, and customers can get their own food, provided they wear masks. 

Restaurants are also required to put at least one employee on buffet-watch, tasked with keeping customers six feet apart and in their PPE. At the Chinese restaurant, blue dots affixed to the floor marked the appropriate range for social distancing, while an aproned employee kept an eye on developments. 

The amendment’s text doesn’t demand customers use gloves or hand sanitizer, though it requires that eateries provide the sanitizer and at least encourage its use. Each buffet bar at No. 1 China had a box of gloves and a bottle of sanitizer. During the lunch rush Saturday, it appeared that customers were ready to comply with the rules, and over about an hour’s time, no one approached the buffet without the accompanying personal protective equipment. 

Other restaurants had also picked up the change in orders and adjusted accordingly. Western Sizzlin’, on Hamric Drive in Oxford, had switched back from cafeteria serving just a few days after the order was amended, a manager said by phone Saturday morning. 

At Cici’s Pizza, over on Oxford’s Snow Street, the store manager said his restaurant had done the same. When asked how the adjustment had been for the store, he declined to comment, though his reasoning seemed to be an answer in itself — that business was up. 

“I really can’t talk,” he said. “I’ve got customers.”