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With the coronavirus crisis still raging across the United States, states have already begun easing restrictions on restaurants. Georgia and Tennessee began to reopen them for in-person dining on Monday, and Alaska allowed them to reopen on April 24 at 25% capacity. More states will follow. The hope is to reemploy some of the 8 million people who have been laid off or furloughed from the restaurant industry since the beginning of the pandemic. Yet the pent-up hunger for a meal out can't prevent the bleak new reality ahead: fewer restaurants, shorter menus, emptier spaces, costlier meals, different customers, more delivery and takeout.
Some of America’s biggest and most popular restaurants say the dice are not yet worth rolling. Representatives from McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Dunkin’ confirmed to BuzzFeed News that they have no plans to reopen their dining rooms in Georgia on Monday and will continue to offer to-go service only. A growing list of local Atlanta restaurants have said they wouldn't reopen Monday either, Eater reported.
McDonald’s, which counts 50 new restaurant safety processes in the middle of COVID-19 and holds three senior leadership meetings a day about safety precautions and regulations, said in a statement, “We’re moving thoughtfully, judiciously and in close partnership with franchisees to determine what additional procedures will be needed when we open dining rooms again.”
That's not true of Waffle House, which told BuzzFeed News it was preparing its dining rooms in Georgia and Tennessee locations for limited dine-in service — some booths will be roped off and some countertop seating will be closed to comply with social distancing requirements. Waffle House is so well known for its resiliency that FEMA uses it as an unofficial test for disaster damage. “It will be a slow recovery, but it’s trying a solution rather than being stuck in time,” spokesperson Njeri Boss told BuzzFeed News. “We’re taking steps to see what an appropriate solution can be.”
“Our menus may even be different.”
Around the rest of the country, restaurants are transforming from community hubs into kitchens for takeout and delivery, often with a limited menu — and they will likely stay that way for some time.
Stumptown Coffee Roasters recently reopened a Portland café with reduced hours — 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. — and to-go service only. “We’re managing the flow of traffic with signage to help demonstrate a healthy distance in line to order. We will continue to follow heightened cleaning and sanitizing procedures, including regular wipe-downs of all surfaces and point-of-sale systems,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
The CEO of Olive Garden’s parent company, Darden, which has furloughed 150,000 hourly workers, said when restaurants reopen “things will be different. Our dining rooms will look different. Some processes will be different. Our menus may even be different.”
Different may be an understatement. At least in the near term, and probably at least until we have a vaccine, it won’t serve anyone to hold on to nostalgia for dining as we knew it.
On Thursday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order with 39 guidelines for reopening restaurants enforced by the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Natural Resources, and local law enforcement
It's unclear how enforcement will work, but restaurant workers in Georgia will have to be screened for illness, wear masks “at all times,” avoid “unnecessary person-to-person contact,” and minimize customer interactions. Parties can’t be larger than six people, and tables will need at least 6 feet of space between them. There shall be “physical barriers on booth seating when available” and plexiglass at the registers. Restaurant playgrounds will remain closed. And under no circumstances should restaurants “allow patrons to congregate in waiting areas or bar areas.” Guests waiting to be seated must stand at premeasured floor markings, outdoors, or in their cars.
Not everyone thinks the new approach will be enough to protect restaurant workers — or that they've had enough time to put the right protection together. Atlanta chef Hugh Acheson told BuzzFeed News, “There’s no way that people can properly get systematic approaches for their crew in that short a time. We’ve been thinking about it but we’re only halfway through to getting a protocol or handbook on our new system. Once we get it done we have to run it by scientists and health professionals and food service workers and food science people just to make sure that we haven’t missed anything.”
In Tennessee, where businesses can reopen in accordance with new safety recommendations (issued on Friday “without the burden of heavy mandates”), restaurants are asked to only open 50% of their seating capacity, with no parties larger than six people and at least 6 feet of space between tables. Bar areas should remain closed. “Extensive signage” should be posted reminding people about “COVID-19 best practices.” There shall be no live music. And there should be temperature checks for every customer.
As states issue guidelines, the National Restaurant Association said it is considering how it can update its safety training programs for a post-COVID-19 world. Global chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks that have reopened in China are evaluating what new practices they can bring to the US.
In the end, the outcome of social distancing is smaller, more expensive menus to compensate for the decline in traffic — which could provoke a downward spiral in attendance and price out some customers. Servers trying to minimize contact may not stop at your table often if at all to check on you; but with fewer tables, more than ever, they’ll rely on the generosity of your tips. A lot of takeout; a lot of trash.
“It’s going to look bad. That’s what it’s going to look like.”
States may allow restaurants and cafés to reopen, but that doesn’t mean they will make it. Many can’t survive long if only 50% or so of their seats are allowed to be filled, even with some money coming in from pickup and delivery. None of the restaurant owners with whom BuzzFeed News spoke knew what to expect, except perhaps to brace for a painful struggle ahead.
“I’m gonna tell you, it’s going to look bad. That’s what it’s going to look like,” said Frank Olivieri, owner of Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia. “Do I want to see everything reopen? Yeah. Do I think it’s a bad idea? Absolutely.”
He added that he had seen people walking around without masks and gloves. “You’re like, don’t you have cable? You see people talking to each other — with their masks under their chin. Okay, maybe your chin won’t get infected.”
With a COVID-19 death toll that’s still rising, most restaurant owners BuzzFeed News spoke to didn't expect lines whenever they reopen their dining rooms. One said he’d be lucky if he had to deal with that problem. “I think we’re being very optimistic that social distancing will even be an issue,” said Kevin Jackson, general manager of the New York City pizzeria John’s of Bleecker Street.
The last financial crisis caused the proliferation of fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle, Shake Shack, and Sweetgreen. People had less money, and not-too-fancy dining was a small but affordable luxury.
What will this downturn do to restaurants? One clue: The one chain that has been crushing it during the pandemic is delivery king Domino’s. Almost everyone else will be staring at emptier dining rooms.