What Happens When We Can’t Dine Outside Anymore?

The pandemic is full of uncertainties, but one thing is for certain: outdoor dining can't last forever. So what happens when it gets colder?

Adjusting to the new normal

No one was prepared for a pandemic, least of all the tourism and restaurant industries. COVID-19 forced everyone to revaluate every aspect of life as we know it and make the most of what we had (or suddenly didn’t have). Safety and distance was at the forefront of America’s mind as reopening and stay-at-home orders eased. The new normal came slowly, with delivery and takeout taking center stage until the warmer months of the year.

As of mid-summer, many cities across the country are allowing outdoor dining (and some indoor). On a state-by-state basis, restaurants could open as soon as they implemented enhanced cleaning measures and proved they had the space to allow social distancing.

The warmth of the summer months allowed for beautiful, fairy-light-lit patios and closed-off streets full of tables and chairs. But the summer can’t last forever, so what happens when the cold returns for much of the country and streets have to open up again? Will it be safe to return to indoor dining? Or is America in for a wave of eating-in and staying-in once more? Wherever you’re dining, here’s what not to do at reopened restaurants.

The safety of outdoor dining

How safe is outdoor dining really? As a customer, there are some important dos and don’ts for avoiding germs and lowering your risk. The current laws demand both patrons and staff wear masks at all times (excluding eating and drinking) and are spaced/seated at least six feet apart from other parties. Restaurants must amp up cleaning and sanitation measures for common spaces and disinfect all areas/utensils between each party.

The CDC guidelines also recommend limiting contact with high touch areas, such as menus, utensils, card reachers, and door handles. As long as these measures are in place, the CDC deems the activity one step up from “lowest risk,” in the “more risk” or second-tier category. Take a peek at the public places doctors won’t go during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sustainability of the restaurant industry right now

Many restaurants rushed to reopen as soon as they could to try and recoup severe losses from earlier in the year. A National Restaurant Association survey found that the restaurant industry was down more than $120 billion dollars during just the first three months of the pandemic, with dramatic decreases in revenue and business even after reopening. Current estimates are looking at that number to double by the end of the year.  Speaking of losses, here’s how much COVID-19 has cost the restaurant industry.

Outdoor dining has limited most restaurants to anywhere from 50 percent to 75 percent capacity, with many at lower, unsustainable numbers or unable to reopen at all. Further, regulations about alcohol sales, staff safety and wellness checks, and the threat of closure over regulation breaks have left many restaurants unable to stay afloat. Crucially for the restaurant industry, the pandemic entirely changed how Americas spend their money.

“Whether restaurants can survive at a lower capacity depends on a multitude of factors,” according to Andrew Cromer, a restaurant attorney at AXS Law Group. “Rent, overhead, and how successful you’re able to leverage delivery to win on the smallest of margins.” While the number of customers is one factor of the equation, the other costs of owning and running a restaurant also add up, including food waste, utilities, and worker’s health insurance.

Uncertain future

Re-opening Continues Across Densely Populated New York And New Jersey AreasAlexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

While it’s painful to remember the weeks and months of lockdowns and quarantine restrictions, another wave of similar circumstances is not out of the question. Many health experts worry about the upcoming months with workplaces and schools reopening. Another wave of the virus would send the barely-hanging-on restaurant industry back into a tail spin if they are not prepared for the possibility of shifting yet again to a delivery and takeout model of business. For many, this would be unsustainable and force closure. On that note, your favorite restaurants may be looking pretty different when you see them again.

The shift to indoor dining

While those living in colder states are beginning to worry about the impending winter months, some states have already been facing the opposite problem. Restaurants in states with extremely hot summer temperatures have largely been unable to have outdoor dining.

“Many states who enjoy temperate climate in the summers are benefitting from the ability to host patrons with outdoor dining,” notes Elizabeth Blau, a restaurateur and owner of Honey Salt restaurant in Las Vegas,”[Yet] in some of the warmer western and southern states, where temps can average 115 degrees, summer outdoor dining is currently impossible.” In some of these states, indoor dining has been permitted with strict regulations on the distance between tables, air quality/ventilation, and other safety measures.

Winter is coming

What does this mean when the extreme cold and snow hits? That’s a difficult question to answer. Many regions are already allowing indoor dining with decreased capacity. However, in places like New York City, lawmakers are not budging. Restaurants are not allowed to reopen indoor dining despite numerous complaints and lawsuits fighting in opposition. Restaurants are often among the first reopened places to be closed again when things take a turn for the worse.

What can restaurant owners do?

Curbside Pickup Takeaway Food Sign during Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemiccarterdayne/Getty Images

“Restaurants in colder climates face a daunting task of keeping the lights on while maintaining their customers’ health and safety,” reminds Cromer. “Restaurants should prepare for the worst-case scenario by aligning with delivery companies…additionally, [they should] be prepared for any operation changes inside the restaurant to make third party delivery flow more seamless for your restaurant.” (Also, remind yourself how to safely enjoy takeout.)

In the restaurant business, it’s largely a margins game. Many restaurants were already operating on small margins pre-COVID-19, with alcohol sales and customer volume/turnaround as heavy-hitters. In this new world of decreased capacity, many restaurants who fall under 50 percent capacity will decide to close their doors or return to methods of delivery and take-out to try and survive, though over 31 percent of restaurants reported they do not have the ability to survive another year under these circumstances.

What will restaurants do?

Some methods to continue outdoor dining into the colder season have been seen around the world before. For example, heat lamps, single-use blankets, and individual fire pits. These short-term fixes can help delay the inevitable, though harsh wind, sleet, and snow are tough to beat. The outside world is now harsher than ever—make sure you’re cleaning these items once you return home.

Mark Wasilefsky, the Head of Restaurant Franchise Financial Group at TD Bank, notes that “QSRs will likely be fine during the colder months because of their drive-through, delivery, and in-store pickup capabilities. Other restaurants, like fast-casual and fine dining establishments, will need to find creative ways to offset permitted capacities that are currently as low as 25 percent.”

Wasilefsky has a few recommendations for restaurateurs in this strange time:

  • Continue to take advantage of government programs, including the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL), and private sector programs to help maximize liquidity.
  • Limit menus to more profitable items that require less inventory and reduce waste
  • Establish a strong delivery menu and program. Leverage existing kitchen set skills to provide delivery-focused products (food that is tasty, has variety, and travels well).
  • Move away from reliance on alcohol sales, allowing for BYOB where permitted.

These photos of the new normal for restaurants will hammer home the point that things are changing.

What customers can do to save their favorite restaurants

No one knows what the future will hold in the course of the virus and its progression. Estimates are almost impossible when it comes to an unprecedented pandemic. Restaurants know that providing a needed service in a safe environment is what their clientele are searching for right now. On the service side, here’s what waiters want you know to about outdoor dining.

Those who love restaurants know how important their contribution is to helping restaurants stay open. Collectively, we need to do the best we can now to assure a strong economic future for restaurants, cafes, and eating establishments big and small.

At the end of the day, it’s important to patronize your local restaurants (in some way) if you’re able. It’s up to us to help keep the lights on both figuratively and literally. On the one hand, it’s understandable and cautious to not dine indoors or out. On the other, the CDC has outlined takeout and delivery as “low risk” options. At this time, it’s about doing whatever we can (safely!) to help bolster individual, national, and global economies. Here’s how to support small businesses right now.

The fate of indoor and outdoor dining are both up in the air, but all is not lost. Options like grocery delivery, food delivery/takeout, and making meals at home will always be there. Next up, take a look at how much money coronavirus has cost the world so far.

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