Industry News

Restaurant reopenings require balance between reassuring diners, reinforcing rules

As restaurants and bars across the country begin the process of reopening amid the pandemic, operators are tasked with creating an environment where diners feel safe. Unfortunately, customers are also one of the biggest risk factors for restaurants. Diners in many cities where eateries are reopening indoor and outdoor dining areas have flouted rules about social distancing and face coverings, despite restaurants’ efforts to enforce them.

Noncompliant customers create challenges for restaurants 

Many restaurants have adapted quickly and creatively, increasing sanitization protocols and putting in place other safety measures to stop the spread of germs, said Larry Lynch, The National Restaurant Association’s senior vice president of certification and operations.

“I think the challenge they have now is...getting the public to think the same way, to get comfortable with keeping six feet apart...and to wear the face coverings,” he said. “The science tells us that the face coverings make all the difference in the world, and they’re not just keeping [customers] themselves safe, they’re keeping other patrons and the employees from becoming sick.”

Lynch noted that resistance to masks is a common problem, despite advice from public health officials and city and state mandates.

Florida’s Miami-Dade County recently enacted an emergency order that would temporarily shut down restaurants that didn’t enforce rules around social distancing and mask wearing, The Miami Herald reported. Days later, after the county reported a record 2,418 new COVID-19 cases on July 4, Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced that he is rolling back indoor dining starting today, according to a local ABC News report. Cities and states including New York City and California have also rolled back or delayed plans to open indoor dining as the number of cases continues to rise.

Customers’ noncompliance with social distancing and mask wearing protocols has forced some operators to close their doors because they don’t believe they can maintain a safe environment. Earlier this month, Los Angeles taqueria Hugo's Tacos announced it was temporarily re-closing both of its locations in the city, Food & Wine reported. 

"Our taco stands are exhausted by the constant conflicts over guests refusing to wear masks," the company said in a statement. "Staff have been harassed, called names, and had objects thrown at them. A mask isn't symbolic of anything other than our desire to keep our staff healthy." 

Putting peace of mind on the menu

For restaurants that are pressing on with reopening dining areas, reasoning with patrons who disregard the rules is only half of the equation. To get business back to a level that allows restaurants stay afloat, operators need to appeal to people who may still have some reservations about dining out.

“If 20% of the population is not coming out...there’s nothing you can do about that,” Alabama restaurateur Pete Blohme told AL.com. “About 40% are ‘Damn the torpedoes, we’re going in.’ That’s not enough to sustain your business. The 40% who are left, it’s about them, making them feel safe and comfortable.”

Proper training and communication go a long way when it comes to making diners feel safe, The National Restaurant Association's Lynch said.

To that end, the association continually updates its website with coronavirus information and resources, and recently launched the ServSafe Dining Commitment. To be part of the program, restaurants must adhere to reopening procedures based on CDC and FDA guidelines, and have a certain level of staff training. Participating eateries will be able to display a ServSafe Dining Commitment logo designed to give diners peace of mind. The Texas Restaurant Association is piloting a similar program that will reward qualified restaurants with a Texas Restaurant Promise Certified and Verified decal, Restaurant Business reported.

Integrating these increased safety measures will be key to combating the climate of uncertainty that is stalling restaurants’ recovery. US restaurant transactions, which had shown softening declines in June, stalled for the second week in a row this week as COVID-19 cases continued to increase in a number of states, according to a report from The NPD Group. 

“It’s apparent that the road to recovery is going to be a challenging one for the US restaurant industry,” NPD advisor David Portalatin said in a statement. “Consumer demand for restaurant dining is there as well as a want for normalcy, but there is nothing normal about this situation.”

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