As Valentine’s Day approaches, Scott Carlson is setting candles out at his restaurants for the first time in nearly a year.
Carlson owns Americana and Court Ave. Brewing Co., both in downtown Des Moines, and Gilroy’s in West Des Moines. In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, staff took everything off the tables, minimizing surfaces that needed sanitizing.
“It seems like the surface areas have not been a big source of COVID,” he said. “So we put things like candles back.”
Candlelight ambiance in place, Carlson expects all three of his restaurants to be busy for Valentine’s Day. Although Iowa has lifted mandatory COVID-19 precautions for restaurants, he plans to keep mask and social distancing precautions in place.
“I think things like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Mothers’ Day and Easter … will probably be some people’s first forays back out,” he said. “This will be how they dip their toes back in the water.”
Holidays have bookended COVID-19 restrictions in Iowa. The very first shutdown order came on St. Patrick’s Day last year, forcing crowds of green-clad partiers to end their festivities at noon. Restaurants and bars reopened in May with limited capacity and social distancing instructions. A mask mandate for customer-facing employees came later.
Then, right before Super Bowl Sunday — traditionally a major money-maker for sports bars and restaurants — Gov. Kim Reynolds rolled back all COVID-19 mandates. Under her newest public health proclamation, restaurants and bars are advised to “take reasonable measures … to ensure the health of employees, patrons and members of the public.”
Iowa Restaurant Association President Jessica Dunker praised the measure, which she says gives more flexibility to restaurant owners.
“We were thankful that three of our key holidays appear to have been given back,” Dunker said. “Super Bowl Sunday being one, Valentine’s being the second, and then the largest bar holiday of the year, which is St. Patrick’s Day.”
Despite the newfound freedom, some restaurant owners in the Des Moines metro have decided to keep in place the same restrictions from previous months as they prepare for Valentine’s Day crowds.
Fire Creek, an upscale American restaurant in West Des Moines, posted on Facebook that masks and social distancing would still be required. Owner Meg Williams said the response from customers to keeping the precautions in place was overwhelmingly positive, aside from a single “thumbs-down” comment.
Like Carlson, Williams said the restaurant’s COVID-19 policy evolved as the pandemic went on. Fire Creek switched from disposable paper menus back to reusable ones that employees wipe down. The salt & pepper shakers have returned to the table and are sanitized frequently.
Fire Creek will run a special Valentine’s Day menu with a selection of steak, lobster, prime rib and crab legs. Williams expects a busy weekend.
“We don’t have any room. All reservations for (Friday), Saturday and Sunday are booked,” she said. “It’s fabulous. Just fabulous.”
Other restaurants are capitalizing on a newly popular, COVID-safe holiday tradition: the take-and-bake restaurant meal.
Django, a French restaurant in downtown Des Moines, sold out of its take-and-bake meals for Valentine’s Day. For $160, customers could bring home a four-course meal, plus champagne and wine.
Carlson, of Americana, Gilroy’s and Court Ave. Brewing, said he decided against doing takeout for the holiday weekend. On New Year’s, he didn’t have enough room for a line of people waiting for takeout and those waiting for a table.
Instead, Carlson said some customers were buying gift cards to celebrate Valentine’s Day later, when restaurants might be a little emptier.
“If there’s still concern, this would not be the weekend to go out,” he said. “All restaurants are going to be, probably, overwhelmed no matter what.”
Dunker praised Iowa’s approach to keeping restaurants and bars open. While Iowa restaurants and bars are still struggling with slow business and limited space for distanced guests, Dunker said they’re in a far better place than restaurants in states with stricter closures.
“Given the information that was at hand throughout the last year, the state of Iowa has truly done an admirable job in doing what they can to balance public health against the need to keep businesses sustained,” Dunker said.
Even so, Dunker and restaurateurs said holidays during a pandemic, while more popular than other days, still pale in comparison to pre-COVID-19 nights out, when a restaurant could be wall-to-wall with happy couples.
“I think that that might be what we see with some of these other holidays,” Dunker said. “It will be a really good day, but it won’t touch financially the things that we would have budgeted for a year ago.”