The New Normal–What Restaurants Look Like as they Open Their Doors

As states and cities around the country begin easing restrictions designed to slow the progression of COVID-19, restaurants are finding themselves faced with a difficult decision: Do they open dine-in service with specific safety protocol in place, or is it too early and are they putting both customers and employees at risk?

Many in Atlanta decided on the latter. Restaurants received the ok by Gov. Brian Kemp to operate at 50 percent capacity on April 27. The response? More than 120 restaurants opted to remain closed, signing the #GAHospitalityTogether, an initiative that lists restaurateurs who believe the risk is too great at this time.

In Alaska, less than 5 percent of the restaurants are expected to reopen until the restrictions have been lessened.

On the other side of the dilemma are at least three restaurants in Weld County, the third largest county in Colorado, whose owners chose to open despite the state’s public health order making it illegal. El Charro Mexican Restaurant, in Greeley Colorado, which followed social distancing protocol by seating guests at every other table, could not serve all the customers that showed up.

Before we take a look at the changes restaurants are implementing as they open, let’s see what states are allowing dine-in service.

States Allowing Restricted Restaurant Dining

The following states have lifted the ban on customers dining in restaurants (though counties, cities and towns may override): Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, South Carolina (outdoor dining), North and South Dakota, parts of Florida, Georgia, parts of Indiana and Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

Keep in mind that each state has specific safety regulations, such as Texas, Alaska, and Louisiana, all of which are allowing restaurants to reopen at only 25 percent dine-in capacity.

The big question in operator’s minds is this: What percentage of guests will be walking through their doors? If polls are any indication, consumers are not quite ready to dash out to their favorite eatery. According to Restaurant Business, three different polls found anywhere from 18 to 26 percent of Americans support reopening and are comfortable eating out. Restaurants with outdoor dining seem to be faring better while others report a slower start than expected.

In a surprise decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on May 13, Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer-at-Home” order was struck down, immediately opening bars and restaurants with no restrictions. Several cities, however, responded with their own Safer-at-Home orders with distinct regulations and time frames. These include the counties of Milwaukee, Dane, and Kenosha, and the city of Racine.

For those that have opened, here’s a look at the new normal.

Restaurant’s Safety Guidelines

While states and cities are lifting restrictions across the country, most come with their own specific guidelines for operations. An example is Arkansas where restaurants are limited to one-third capacity, parties no larger than 10, and employees that must wear masks and be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, including fevers.

Bloomin’ Brands, one of the world’s largest casual dining companies, and parent company to Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, and other brands, reported 336 restaurants open for dine-in service as of May 5. Their new normal includes the use of gloves and masks for employees, contactless payment options for guests, table management to provide for social distancing, and allowing guests to wait in cars, as well as an increased focus on cleaning and sanitizing.

Chili’s Grill & Bar has added hand sanitizers, cleanable or disposable menus, skipped tables when seating, and masks and gloves for servers.

Other restaurants are not allowing diners to sit with anyone that does not live in their household, placing dividers between booths, and menus that are pulled up on customer’s phones.

Back in April, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) released a COVID-19 Reopening Guide. The 10-page guide was created with the help of the FDA, CDC, and EPA. Their suggestions include discarding single-use items such as paper menus after use; clean and sanitize reusable menus, table condiments, table tops, and common touch areas between seatings; remove lemons and unwrapped straws from self-service drink stations; make hand sanitizer readily available to guests; and consider face coverings and employee temperature checks.

Help Implementing

There are a few companies that have developed helpful tools that those in the industry are considering as they start implementing the necessary changes. Social D Products has created markers that are placed on the floor designating where your customers should position themselves. Instead of X marks the spot, these display your logo or own design, or a cute saying such as, “So close you can smell the food!”

For those looking to implement contactless payment or ordering options, CardFree works with most restaurant POS systems. Customers simply order and/or pay their checks via their mobile devices—no app necessary. My Menu allows guests to scan a QR code in order to see the menu and order from their own mobile device.

So, just what is the good news amidst the massive regulations restaurants are now faced with? Despite the new norm, seeing old customers come through open doors, sit down at their favorite table, and enjoy a meal has warmed the heart of many an owner. Now, the balancing act continues—maintaining a safe space while continuing to lift restrictions and develop a plan that will help restaurants survive until the new-norm returns to a financially feasible and somewhat profitable future.

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