Corn maze and pumpkin patch expected to reopen in mid-September.

MARLBORO TWP. For a weekday afternoon at 2:30, things were looking lively last week at Maize Valley Winery & Craft Brewery.


The parking lot was nearly full and so were the widely spaced tables in the open-sided dining room, tent and patio. Masked servers busily delivered trays of food and beverages.


Nearby, visitors were taking photos in front of a vintage pickup truck loaded with colorful flowers. In the distance, a family was checking out the goat pen. Three women emerged from the sunflower patch with freshly cut bouquets.


"It’s been like this all summer," said Bill Bakan, one of Maize Valley’s five owners. "We’re a destination. We’re selling smiles here."


His enthusiasm while saying this is guarded.


Since March, COVID-19 has put a lot of new requirements and uncertainty into the large and multifaceted operation at 6193 Edison St. NE, which includes everything from beer- and wine-making to a restaurant and deli to a corn maze, pumpkin patch and other family attractions.


"We’re hanging in there, but it’s hard, real hard," Bakan said candidly. When Gov. Mike DeWine closed Ohio bars and restaurants for sit-down business on March 15, Maize Valley had to adapt for carryout food and beverages.


Later, when restaurants were permitted to reopen for outdoor dining on May 15 and indoor dining May 21, Bakan and staff had to retool operations again for physically distanced seating. Where customers previously could line up and order at a counter, now there was table service. Fortunately, "we have as many employees now as ever," Bakan said.


"It was definitely a curveball," server Nate AuFrance said about COVID-19. "Customers have been really cooperative, following the governor’s orders. People are still coming out, and wanting to be outside. They’re really liking the tableside service."


To assure proper distancing, the seating capacity for dining at Maize Valley has been cut from 250 to 110. Eliminating live music this year, always a popular weekend attraction, means a quicker turnover of tables, which are sanitized between seatings.


"People want to go out but they don’t want to stay too long," Bakan said.


For 2020, Maize Valley has suspended its popular Thursday night car cruise-ins. It normally hosts about two dozen annually.


"The Stark County Health Department told me not to," Bakan said. "They said they were following Ohio guidelines that specifically singled out car shows."


What most visibly concerns Bakan is uncertainty about the upcoming fall season, a big time for Maize Valley with its corn maze, pumpkin patch and other family attractions.


Already canceled due to COVID-19 are the pig and duck races, the corn pit and Megasaurus shows.


"The whole (COVID-19) situation is a rolling unknown. There’s always another shoe dropping," Bakan said. "Everything is about planning. We hire 60 to 80 people every fall. We need to hire and we don’t know what to do. We’re communicating with the Stark County Health Department. They’re okay with us opening with restrictions, but we’re still working on that."


What Maize Valley is planning for fall is timed tickets that will limit the number of visitors on the property at a single time.


"We want to be responsible and practical at the same time," Bakan said. "Which makes things like wagon rides really challenging."


Maize Valley’s signature autumn attraction, the eight-acre corn maze, is returning for certain. Despite a notably dry summer, the maze is looking green and tall and will open in mid-September.


The pattern carved into this year’s maze – a Maize Valley tradition – has a particular timeliness for this year. The theme is healthcare heroes and the design includes a nurse and an ambulance.


"I have a neighbor across the street who’s a respiratory therapist for Aultman, another friend is an emergency-room doctor. We’ve been hearing about what hospitals have been going through," Bakan said. "We’re paying tribute to the people on the front lines of this."


Reach Dan at 330-580-8306 or dan.kane@cantonrep.com


On Twitter: @dkaneREP