Masks, gloves and social distancing guidelines are helping the Shady Maple Smorgasbord stay open for business, even as the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise in Lancaster County.

I visited the county’s largest restaurant at 129 Toddy Drive in East Earl on July 31 to see what strategies are in place to keep diners safe and to see how the experience differed from pre-pandemic times.

Guests entered the spacious lobby to meet a large sign that reads “masks are required beyond this point.” A small table to the left offered printouts of the restaurant’s “touchless buffet” safety strategy and a hand sanitizer dispenser.

Several groups of patrons waited in line to pay, moving 6 feet at a time from one duct-tape mark to the next. 

At the end of the line, a single cashier rang up all the meal tickets ($16.51 per adult after tax). The restaurant cut back on cashiers, wait staff and hours of operation to save money during the pandemic, said Herb Noll, general manager. 

I read over the buffet safety printout as I waited to be seated. The policy emphasizes the use of masks and gloves. Masks are required at all times, except when seated at your table. Disposable sandwich gloves are provided at the entrances to all buffet and beverage areas.

The gloves are large and thin, like those deli workers use when preparing sandwiches. 

Patrons must wear a new pair of gloves for each trip to the buffet and beverage stations. Noll said he instructed wait staff to clear used gloves from tables whenever possible to prevent patrons from reusing them. 

In the dining areas, half the tables are reserved for social distancing. Patrons walked to and from the buffet and beverage stations, donning and removing gloves and masks as they moved out for more food or returned with full plates.

Of the nearly 4,000 people who viewed an informal poll I conducted from the LancasterOnline Instagram account, 58% of those who voted said they would be uncomfortable dining at the buffet. Nonetheless, attendance at the Shady Maple Smorgasbord has increased steadily since early July when Lancaster County moved to the green phase of reopening, Noll said.

The day I visited marked the buffet's biggest day in three weeks, he said. 

Shady Maple’s dining areas can seat 2,000 patrons altogether. A big day during the pandemic means almost 500 patrons at a given time, approaching the state’s 25% occupancy cap for restaurants. 

“Customer reviews are outstandingly good,” Noll said.