As COVID-19 continues its viral assault across the U.S. and the world, restaurants, and others in the hospitality industry are faced with a difficult decision, to open in-house dining or stick with takeout and delivery. For some, the decision has been made for them.
With the record-high number of COVID-19 cases spiking across the country as restaurants and bars reopen, some states and cities have opted to reclose these establishments or return to previous restrictions. On June 29, bars in Arizona and Texas were ordered to reclose, while restaurants in Texas reverted to 50 percent capacity. July 8 saw Miami-Dade County closing restaurants to dine-in service. Just five days later, restaurants and bars in California were ordered to do the same.
Michigan, a state that saw over 100 people infected by the virus after visiting the same bar in East Lansing, reverted bars to takeout and outdoor drinking, excluding those located in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Restaurants or bars in Colorado and Louisiana, as well as counties in Idaho, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Nevada, and Illinois, have all found themselves closed or at reduced capacity once again. On July 23, Colorado went so far as to suspend alcohol sales after 10 pm. For the laws pertaining to your state, please see the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Law Center.
As anticipated, these closures and the increase in positive tests are leaving a public uncertain about revisiting their favorite watering holes and dining establishments. On July 20, the year-over-year decline in seated diners in restaurants in the U.S. was over 65 percent—a number that we all hoped would be waning by this time, almost 7 months after COVID-19 entered the nation. While early June saw 41 percent of U.S. adults comfortable going out to eat, the end of June saw that number decline to 36 percent as the virus surged yet again.
Those that are venturing out into the public have altered their expectations quite a bit since the pandemic struck. VIPinsiders surveyed 8,511 restaurant customers asking what they wanted as restaurants reopened. Here are a few of their findings:
- Close to 62 percent wanted restaurants to use gloves and masks.
- Almost 60 percent reported that disposable, single-use, menus were important to them.
- Over 22 percent wanted disposable plastic ware, plates, cups, menus, and single-use condiments, while over 14 percent said it was not important to them.
- A little over 46 percent thought it important that restaurants check all guests and staff temperatures before dining.
- Over 40 percent were looking for an entrée price ranging from $10 to $15.
- Over 50 percent thought that restaurant shutdowns were necessary and that we should do it again if another outbreak occurs.
The bottom line is that customers are looking to operators to keep them as safe as possible as they return to what was once their favorite pastime—dining out.
Outdoor Seating and Reduced Capacity
Zagat’s Future of Dining study found that, of the almost 7,000 diners surveyed, the two most important factors that would ease their concerns and influence their return were outdoor seating and the reduced capacity for indoor dining. Over 75 percent said that they were more likely to visit a restaurant with outdoor seating, and 70 percent reported the importance of reduced seating indoors.
While it may seem impossible to operate a successful business with reduced capacity, many states and cities have passed regulations that increase space for outdoor dining, including the use of public property and sidewalks. Check with local authorities for regulations in your area.
Masks and Gloves
In this same study, 85 percent said that they would be more comfortable if social distancing measures were in place and the staff wore masks. Masks are intended to protect other people should the wearer unknowingly be infected and symptom-free. This is becoming one of the most important considerations when slowing the spread of the virus. According to CDC Director, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus—particularly when used universally within a community setting.”
Several real-life scenarios back Dr. Redfield’s statement, including a Missouri hair salon where two stylists, both of which tested positive, continued seeing clients after they’d developed respiratory problems, but before they’d been confirmed positive. Both wore masks. Sixty-seven customers volunteered to be tested, and all tested negative.
Most consumers are looking for restaurants that are taking the virus, and their health, seriously. Businesses that demonstrate this through the use of hand sanitizers (with at least 60 percent alcohol) at every table, as well as dedicated staff members that clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, back of chairs, tables, and sink handles, will gain their customer’s trust.
Contactless or disposable menus are becoming a necessity in the current environment. One of the solutions growing in popularity is the QR code menu. Diners simply scan the code and access the menu on their smartphones. Contactless ordering and payments are also on the rise through restaurant apps, widgets on websites, and digital wallets.
Customers and Rising Costs
While diminished seating and rising costs associated with a disrupted supply chain are leaving restauranteurs struggling to stay afloat, about half of consumers expect restaurants to absorb these costs and not charge extra. In addition, according to a Technomic survey, about one-third would accept raising menu prices or a surcharge, while the other third would choose a different restaurant if faced with paying more.
Needless to say, many operators are feeling caught between a rock and a hard place. While well-established chains are more likely to have the resources that enable them to ride out this current downturn, it is estimated that as many as 30 percent of independently owned restaurants will be unable to keep their doors open.