Local restaurants adapt to COVID-19 policies after Omicron aftermath

Local businesses, such as Cup & Kettle Tea Co. and Bloomington Bagel Company, have seen changes in in-person customer retention as well as compliance with Monroe County’s COVID-19 policies during the pandemic, especially since Omicron’s thrust.

Jessica Messmer, owner of Cup & Kettle Tea Co. on North Walnut Street, said she noticed a drop in in-person customer numbers since the new Omicron variant became a bigger concern, but an increase in online orders and shipments of tea products from the store.

“We had just started working with an online ordering system right before the pandemic, so it was kind of an accidental thing that turned out to be really useful,” Messmer said.

She said customers can order in-store pickup on the website, but she asks them to wear masks when ordering in person to keep others safe in the store.

Since the start of the pandemic, Messmer said the company has maintained a station with hand sanitizer near the entrance with a glass enclosure, as well as a separate table for pick-up orders.

“We also have a QR code on the door so people can scan and order online if they don’t feel comfortable coming in,” Messmer said.

Messmer said the Omicron variant caused the company to scale back events and shut down its scent wall — a display of sample tea blends that customers could smell and buy. She said she was worried the wall would spread germs and encourage people to take off their masks.

Dr Warren Gavin, a hospitalist at IU Health Methodist Hospital, said the two most important things restaurants can do to combat the spread of Omicron are to continue to enforce mask-wearing and practice good hand hygiene.

“My expectation for restaurants is good hand hygiene all the time,” Dr. Gavin said. “We would expect good hand hygiene to still be around, but I think maintaining impeccable hand hygiene would be one of the big things that could possibly prevent transmission.”

Dr Gavin said he encouraged people to get vaccinated and boosted, especially if they were planning to go out to restaurants more.

“I work at Methodist, and it’s the largest hospital in the state of Indiana, and I haven’t treated a single patient for vaccine side effects,” Dr. Gavin said. “It won’t necessarily protect against Omicron or transmission, but it will keep you from getting seriously ill.”

Sue Aquila, founder and owner of Bloomington Bagel Company, said she requires all staff to be vaccinated, boosted and provide a copy of their vaccination card.

Since the start of the pandemic, she said she has always required employees to wash their hands, clean stations often and make sure everyone keeps their masks on at all times.

“We’ve been lucky to keep busy and have people keep coming in and getting their bagels,” Aquila said. “It’s going to get harder for guests just because it’s colder and we can’t have alfresco dining.”

Customers have been fantastic about complying with store rules and wearing a mask inside, Aquila said. She said most exceptions are usually for people from out of town, but she’s proud of how her staff handles those situations.

“We are not looking for conflict, we just want to ensure the safety of everyone who works here and our guests,” Aquila said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and the pandemic has given us on this team even more of a feeling that we’re all in this together.”

Gladys T. Hensley