I enjoy eating out, especially with family and friends. And like a lot of you, I’ll also be glad when we can do so freely without the restrictions of wearing masks and social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many people, I’ve mostly been eating in, but I’m getting tired of my own cooking. I know I could get meals delivered, but I’m not a fan of that yet.

Every now and then I pick up dinner or lunch, but there’s nothing like sitting across the table from friends and loved ones laughing and talking, reminiscing and people watching.

When the restaurant restrictions were put in place in March, I still went through a few drive-in spots and longed for the days we’d be able to sit inside our favorite restaurants. I’m glad the governor lifted some of those restrictions and allowed people to dine inside while social distancing and mask wearing.

The pandemic impacted everyone, especially the food service industry. When people are afraid to eat out, many of the wait staff also suffer because they depend on tips, not only their regular paychecks.

My sister has worked in the industry more than 20 years and tells me stories of how blessed she and others have been when customers show their appreciation.

Some people may be wondering just how safe it is to eat out now. Over the past few weeks, I’ve eaten at restaurants a couple of times with no problem.

The first weekend restaurants allowed inside dining, my friend Gigi and I went to one of our favorite places that’s usually overflowing with people, especially on a Sunday afternoon after church.

We were among only a handful of people there. We talked to the wait staff about how things were going. They said it was slow, the menu had been pared down and they weren’t sure if certain dishes would be served again in the future.

The to-go orders were plenteous, which helped keep them in business. The staffers were wearing masks and were very courteous.

On another occasion, I met a couple of friends to celebrate my birthday at a different spot. Although there were more customers inside, the staff was still busy handling to-go orders.

Proper seating arrangements insured social distancing. The staff wore masks, the atmosphere was uplifting and the food hit the spot. I didn’t notice anything being cut from their menus.

During the reopening of restaurants, Arkansas news reports said that more than 1,000 complaints were made about businesses not making their staff nor customers adhere to food safety guidelines and precautions against COVID-19.

We must do our part to stay safe by following health guidelines, wearing masks, washing our hands and social distancing.

Restaurants also have to go an extra mile to keep everyone safe, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

The Commercial collects Food Safety reports from the health department and prints violations in the paper.

Until recently, violations were reported on usual matters such as people forgetting to change gloves between tasks while handling food or the lack of hot water or soap and paper towels at a three-compartment sink. Sometimes they were cited for pest control or simply needing a good overall cleaning.

Other times, there were violations that were quickly fixed while the health department inspector was still on the premises.

Currently, if you look at the health department’s website, you’ll see these violations (listed under the name of the restaurant, store, school or other food establishment) as well as a slew of others pertaining to keeping everyone safe during the COVID-19 outbreak.

For example, a place in Jefferson County serving food on July 28 was reported for the following:

“Observed employees in contact with the public not wearing masks, seating has not been adjusted to maintain 6 feet between occupied seats at adjacent tables, and patrons are not being asked to wear face masks prior to entry or when physical distancing of 6 feet cannot be ensured.”

When facilities are written up for COVID-19 violations, they are also given this reminder: “Upon acceptance of the PERMIT issued by the REGULATORY AUTHORITY, the PERMIT HOLDER in order to retain the PERMIT shall: Comply with directives of the REGULATORY AUTHORITY including time frames for corrective actions specified in inspection reports, notices, orders, warnings, and other directives issued by the REGULATORY AUTHORITY in regard to the PERMIT HOLDER’S RETAIL FOOD ESTABLISHMENT or in response to community emergencies.”

By Aug. 7, during the follow-up inspection no violations were reported at that establishment.

Another eatery in Jefferson County was reported for the following: “Staff are not currently being screened daily for symptoms of COVID-19 before entering the facility.”

In another instance, health inspectors said: “Observed cashiers in establishment and patrons coming in the establishment not maintaining 6 feet distance not wearing face coverings.”

While a third was written up when an inspector “Observed two patrons paying for their meal and leaving the facility after they ate without wearing a mask.”

It’s going to take some time for both the restaurants and customers to get used to the idea that observing health requirements is a must for now.

— Sandra Hope is the editorial assistant and former city editor at The Commercial.