For the first time in history, no one has eaten out in months. There have been no candlelit dinner dates, no avocado toast brunches with friends, and certainly no chatting up strangers at bars, thanks to stay-at-home orders put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. But that’s slowly changing as states are starting to reopen their economies. As of May 8, 2020, 22 states—including Texas, Florida, and Colorado—have made the decision to do so, with seven more not too far behind.
Sure, everyone has the desire to resume their b.c. life (before coronavirus), but, for many, it’s accompanied with fear. Given that the virus is still spreading (albeit at a slower rate) and still has no cure, there’s still the risk of catching COVID-19. Potential minefields seem to be everywhere, especially when it comes to eating out. Strangers standing too close while waiting for a table, silverware that may or may not truly be clean, wondering how many unwashed hands touched the menu before you… They are all thoughts restaurant owners, workers, and food safety inspectors have as well. Here’s how the restaurant industry is navigating these very real concerns as they start to open back up for business.
Keeping restaurants clean, sterile, and safe
Currently, the guidelines for reopening restaurants are left to each individual city. The National Restaurant Association has released recommended sanitary guidelines, with input from the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control, and Prevention and Environmental Protection Agency, which serves as the basis for most cities’ regulations. It includes recommendations such as making hand sanitizer readily available to diners, cleaning and sanitizing reusable menus, and requiring employees to follow locally mandated face-covering requirements. In all the current reopened cities, including Atlanta and Dallas, restaurants do not have to pass any sort of new inspection to open. However, if they are caught breaking the health and safety guidelines the city has issued, food safety inspector Jeff Nelken, who is helping restaurants reopen after COVID-19, says the fines and citations will likely be more severe than before COVID-19.
Rich Clark, the owner of C&S Seafood and Oyster Bar in Atlanta, Georgia, says he opened their doors the first day they could, but a lot has changed to protect against the spread of germs. “We take the temperature of every employee each day and they are required to wear a face mask and gloves at all times,” he says. Clark says when customers come to their table, it’s completely bare. Before COVID-19, there were menus, condiments, and silverware on the table, but now customers witness their table being sanitized before they sit down and they are handed newly-sanitized menus and silverware rolled up in a napkin. Anything a customer touches is sanitized immediately after, including menus, pens, and surfaces.
Heather Tierney, the founder of Butcher’s Daughter—which has two locations in New York City and one in Los Angeles—says her restaurants have also undergone big changes to adjust with the new reality. Once the stay-at-home orders in California and New York went into effect in mid-March, she and her staff converted the Butcher’s Daughters locations into bodega-style shops. “We started making our own crystal-infused sanitizers and selling other things people need, like toilet paper,” she says, as well as accommodating to-go food orders. In order to keep employees safe to work, Tierney says that their temperatures are taken every day and everyone wears masks and gloves on their shifts. “Staying open in these ways has helped us ease back into opening, and we will be ready to reopen when the cities allow it,” she says.
Butcher’s Daughter plans to keep these protocols in place, as well as adopting new ones, when the restaurants are allowed to re-open their dining rooms. “We will also be requiring customers to wear masks while they are walking around the restaurant and not at their tables,” Tierney says. “We will provide a sterile, cellophane bag to each customer to store their mask in while they eat, so they can feel confident it stays clean.” Before COVID-19, the tables at Butchers’ Daughter were adjourned with succulents, pottery containing the silverware, and the menus, but Tierney, like Clark, says tables will be completely cleared when customers come in, and sterilized after each meal. “Also, the person who brings out the food to each table will not be the same person clearing the plates, so we will minimizing cross-exposure that way, as well,” she says.
While all these measures go a long way, Nelken says he expects many places to take even more extreme measures to keep customers safe. “I believe some restaurants will even start taking the temperatures of customers, not just employees,” he says. He also thinks many restaurants will nix menus completely, and instead have the food and drink options written on the wall or will use digital kiosks (already in many fast food restaurants) in order to minimize what’s being touched and interaction with waiters. He also thinks there will be a resurgence in disposable plasticware, even in fancy places.
How restaurant atmospheres will be different
Restaurant layouts are also changing in order to make social distancing (aka staying at least six feet apart from others) possible within their space. Tierney says at Butcher’s Daughter, they are installing plexiglass dividers between tables, which will be sanitized after each meal. At C&S Seafood and Oyster Bar, Clark says that they’ve removed half their tables to keep in compliance with the local Atlanta guidelines of no more than 10 people per 500 feet. “The one place it’s been a little tricky to enforce is at the bar—even though we’ve removed many of the bar stools,” he says. “This isn’t a great time for people to be single!” Similarly, Florida and Tennessee, among other states, have state-mandated laws to reduce restaurant capacity by as much as 50 percent.
All the layout changes and safety precautions will almost certainly impact the dining experience, too. As safe as a mask-wearing waiter is, it certainly isn’t the same as being greeted with a smile. “Not only that, but I expect that waiters will be encouraged to minimize the amount of time they spend at each table, which is obviously the opposite of what they did before, which is try to have a rapport with the customers in order to make a good tip,” Nelken says.
Tierney acknowledges the awkwardness, but says her team will do what they can to get around it. “What we plan to do is have the server take the party to their table and they’ll all sanitize together, using the crystal-infused sanitizer we started making in-house,” she says. “It will be like a little pre-meal ritual.”
Tierney says that the silver lining to minimizing the number of diners is that it means certain employees can be devoted solely toward the sanitation efforts. For example, going forward, they will have an employee clean the restroom after it’s used each time and will also have an employee in the kitchen who will enforce mandatory hourly glove changes and hand washing.
All the changes are certainly a lot to consider, and not all restaurants are ready for it. Drew McConnell, the brand manager for Barcelona Wine Bar, which has 18 locations across the country, says even though they can reopen their Atlanta, Georgia restaurant right now, they’re still waiting. “We’re not as focused on being the first to reopen our dining rooms because we’re focused most on safely and vibrantly opening them,” he says. “It’s a bit of a tricky time, but we’re patient when it comes to doing what’s best for our communities and teams and we want to get this right.”
Similarly, people seem to be easing back into eating out, just as restaurants are easing back into serving them. Clark says that in Atlanta, business is doing okay, but it’s still a little slow; people aren’t flooding the restaurants as some might have thought, or worried about. “Some people come in wearing face masks, which they take off to eat and then put them on,” he says. But he emphasizes that the vibe is overall still cheery and people still seem to be enjoying eating a meal they didn’t cook themselves.
Nelken thinks many of the new changes are here for good, not just temporary measures to ease people into eating out again. “Eating out is never going to be the same,” he says. “The pandemic has changed everything.”
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