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Long Island restaurants gearing up for Phase Two outdoor dining after coronavirus shutdowns

The outdoor seating area at Garden Social in

The outdoor seating area at Garden Social in East Meadow in 2019. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Several Long Island restaurant owners cheered Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's announcement Wednesday that outdoor dining will be permitted in Phase Two of the state's reopening from the coronavirus shutdown. That means diners could enjoy al fresco meals as soon as next week, if Nassau and Suffolk county virus metrics stay on track.

“I’m relieved. We’ve been waiting for this announcement,” said Anthony A. Capetola, who owns The Carltun at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow — especially because the restaurant has 26 acres and multiple outdoor spaces with which to work. The courtyard already has tables for 120 diners, but Capetola estimates he could seat about 1,000 people across the property's patios and gardens with social distancing protocols in place.

“We’ll be able to generate some income for the first time in a long time. Though it’s nowhere near the revenue if we were having banquets, it’s something,” he said.

The Carltun received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan from the Small Business Administration, and Capetola has kept on all full-time staff who wanted to keep working . They repainted outdoor furniture and planted vegetables in the greenhouse, baked bread for an on-site, outdoor food market, manned a food window for golfers and cooked a special takeout menu of dishes such as lobster bisque and chicken scarpariello. 

Come next week, chef Stephen Rosenbluth will again helm the full Palm Court menu — albeit served outside — and visitors will find hundreds of seats “at least,” Capetola said, with servers in masks and gloves. (The Carltun had 5,000 branded masks produced, and they should arrive next week).

At the Rust & Gold in Huntington, co-owner Frank Antonetti said the 4-year-old bar and restaurant's outdoor area — 35 seats in the pre-COVID era — would be ready for business by next Wednesday, when the OK to start outdoor service may come. 

“We’re feeling a combination of first-day-of-school jitters, and just a huge amount of relief,” he said. “The hope of this day is what kept us going during the toughest days of quarantine.”

Antonetti said he had managed to keep 60 percent of his small staff during the past few months of curbside pickup, takeout and delivery by getting creative — scheduling bartenders in rotating shifts, shifting hosts to curbside delivery and repurposing barbacks into delivery men. But things haven’t been easy.

There will be much to work out in the days ahead, Antonetti said, “but now that this day is here, any problem that comes along with it in my book is an easy one.”

In East Meadow, the owners of Garden Social are in a better position than many for outdoor dining. Their vast outdoor patio can technically accommodate 200 guests, but because of the number of parking spaces, Garden Social has always been limited to fewer than 70. At that occupancy level, said partner Bob Russo, “we can easily space tables 6 feet apart.”

Thanks to a new Town of Hempstead program, Garden Social was also approved for another 36 seats outside the patio area.

Garden Social offered takeout for the first few weeks of the pandemic, but has been closed since April. Now it is hiring back servers and kitchen staff, adjusting the menu and hooking up the beer lines on  its two dozen taps.

“We’ve already met with the wait staff,” said chef-partner Kevin Liebov. “We’re trying to figure out how we are going to handle a sneeze, how to handle a cough.”

Liebov has considered taking inspiration from the airlines. “You know those airsickness bags they have in the seat pocket? Maybe we will pass out sneeze bags.”

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