Waffle House lovers in Georgia can get their fix again this week when hundreds of the beloved chain’s locations reopen for dine-in customers, as the Peach State controversially eases stay-at-home restrictions while the coronavirus continues to sicken people in that state and others.
Waffle House, a cultural icon across the South offering low-priced meals 24/7, had shifted approximately 330 of its 400 Georgia restaurants to only takeout or delivery services during the height of the pandemic, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Starting Monday, though, those locations will also allow limited dine-in services. Employees will wear masks, booths will be staggered, and people waiting for a table will have to line up outside to practice social distancing, according to local NBC affiliate WXIA. The Georgia-based chain has nearly 2,000 locations, according to CNN.
The restaurants’ dining rooms were closed for more than a month. That’s highly unusual for a chain so well-known for its disaster preparedness that staffers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency informally rely on it as a sort of barometer for community destruction after a hurricane or tornado.
“When you lose the Waffle House, you're losing the local economy,” Joe Rogers Jr., the company’s chairman, told Forbes in March, as stores started to close. “If we let this economy keep going the way it's going, we are leading people to ruin. How many people are you sacrificing to the poorhouse?”
The chain’s CEO told WSB-TV, an ABC affiliate in Atlanta, he’s not going to force employees to come back to the restaurants — which famously resist closing, even in severe weather disasters — although he believes many are ready to do so. At least one Georgia Waffle House employee tested positive for COVID-19 last month, though the 30-year-old recovered. The state has seen nearly 23,500 cases and 916 deaths.
"I think it might make the difference between having a job and not having a job, and I know the unemployment system has been enhanced to help take care of the most vulnerable people, but people want to have jobs, and they want to have something to do and take care of their families," CEO Walt Ehmer said. " I think it’s going to give them some hope."
Not all Georgia city leaders and businesses are itching to reopen the economy, though. Even President Trump disagreed with the speed at which Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp lifted statewide lockdown orders. One restaurant owner in Albany, in the southwestern part of the state, told the Washington Post they were unwilling to open this week.
“My wife, my sons, my granddaughters are in there. My employees. These are folks we love. I can’t play with their lives. We’re a small town. When somebody dies here, everybody knows them,” Glen Singfield, the restaurant owner, told the Post.
Cover: Signage is posted on the inside window of a Waffle House restaurant near Kennesaw State, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)