What's likely to change in your local restaurants due to COVID-19?

"Let's eat out tonight" is one of my favorite suggestions. That may seem odd since, after all, I am the author of a website about food. But the truth is that, while I love to eat, especially some new dish I've never tasted before, I'm not so gung ho about grocery shopping, preparing recipes with 35 ingredients or doing 110 dishes. So when Chicago-area restaurants reopen their dining rooms, I'll be eager to make a reservation, and show up, mask and gloves in place, to enjoy a meal, assuming the restaurant's plans are to create a risk-free or at least fairly safe environment.

But here's the question: Will I actually be able to enjoy dining out? Restaurants in this transitional era of hopefully over-the-hill coronavirus will operate quite differently from those in pre-COVID-19 days. At least for awhile, we have to live with social distancing, masks, gloves, and additional behaviors that will continually remind us of the health dangers lurking in the air and on surfaces. New regulations and expectations will limit the number of people we can dine with at the same time. These changes will be hard on restaurant owners, managers, and employees, but will they also, perhaps, be a burden on customers?  I think that depends upon how flexible diners can be when change is required. 

We'll all have to accept new limitations and not expect pre-coronavirus service. Consider, for example, the masks we are encouraged or required to wear in public places. Is this an infringement on our freedom? Well, much less than, for example, a military draft. Surely government has the right to limit liberty in the name of public safety.  However, how can you dine in a restaurant while wearing a mask and gloves?  Sounds messy to me.  

Fortunately, food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter (a member of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board), directed me to this informative publication: "Preparing Foodservice Establishments to Reopen During COVID-19 Pandemic."  This Penn State Extension Fact Sheet is based upon the recently published "Reopening Guidance" by the National Restaurant Association. Both documents tell restaurants how to set up before opening, what employees must do, and what changes are necessary or recommended.  


Fact Sheet in hand, I leaped ahead in the Penn State guide to find out if I'd have to eat my soup attired in my mask. The answer, thankfully, was "no."  However, I can't just leave my mask at home.  I'll need to wear it to enter the restaurant and get to my table (since the path to my designated table may take me closer than six feet to other people seated at other tables). Everyone at my table will have a mask because the restaurant's host or hostess will have handed out complimentary ones for those who arrived unmasked. 


Having reached my assigned table, I'm disturbed by a new question: what do I do with my mask after I remove it to eat dinner?  Where do I put it so that it can't contaminate nearby surfaces or even people?  The Fact Sheet has a hygienic option and so will some restaurants: the server offers a small paper bag or envelope to house said mask.  Customers can, of course, bring their own resting places for their masks.  They will need to wear them again on the way out of the restaurant. 


Now that we've dispensed with the burdensome issue of customers' masks, let's take a few steps back and, somewhat chronologically, think about what restaurant workers and guests need to know about the new world of dining out.  What follows is my interpretation of what the Penn State Fact Sheet says or implies. 


Managers' Duties: Training Employees 


Masks or other partial face coverings should be required for and provided to employees that come in direct contact with diners. Gloves are also recommended for servers.  They must fit well, or dishes may get dropped. Employees who work in crowded kitchens can also be masked.


All employees should be told that, before coming to work, they should check themselves for illness. (Some restaurants my require temperature-taking either at home or at work. A fever of 100 degrees should mean stay home.)   Review all the commonly known symptoms of COVID-19 with employees.  Also, remind employees about physical distancing, (6 feet), no hand-shaking, and frequent hand washing.


Managers' Duties: Supervising Dining Room Changes


Super-clean everything! "Use approved sanitizers on food contact surfaces while disinfectants can be used on no-food contact surfaces.  Deep cleaning should not only be completed before opening, but also set a schedule for regular detailed cleaning--weekly or more often, depending upon use."


"Arrange seating in dining areas to ensure at least six feet of separation between table setups." Set a maximum capacity for the dining area, which is likely to be lower than the area's original capacity.


Put up a sign or assign the restaurant's host or hostess to tell guests some of the rules of the house.  (Masks on when not at the table, etc.)


Be sure that the waiting area separates different groups of customers by at least six feet.


Install sanitizing stations near high-touch or crowded areas. 


Limit the number of guests to tables of 4-6 people. 


If there is a buffet, install a sneeze guard and perhaps assign an attendant to supervise the area.


Restrooms should be cleaned at least every hour or more often if used frequently.  Be sure that soap, disposable hand towels, and hand sanitizers are all available at all times.


Changes to Keep Customers Safe


All plates, glasses, silverware, and cups used in the dining room should be disposable unless they can be washed and sanitized.


 Menus should be disposable or made of a material that can be sanitized.


Sauces will be served by the waiter or waitress, wearing disposable gloves. Items that were once within the reach of anyone at the table are no longer readily available. Salt and pepper shakers, sugar bowl, plate of lemon slices, bottles of catsup or salad dressings--all these have vanished. Guests who want these items should ask the server. Single-serve, pre-wrapped items will then be brought to each guest that requested one. When this dining party has left the table, all single-serve items remaining on the table, used or unused, should be discarded. The tablecloth should be replaced, sanitized, or covered with another cloth.


Diners who leave the table to go to the restroom, make a phone call, or say "hi" to a friend

at another table should put on their masks before walking around the dining room.


Diners should not ask a server to wrap up leftovers for them to take home, but they can ask for a box or bag and pack up their leftovers themselves. 


Of course, the purpose of the above procedures is to minimize physical contact between those seated at a table, as well as between dining customers and their waitperson, and guests seated or standing in various locations in the restaurant.


How will the reopening of restaurants go?   Slowly and problematically


On May 3, 2020, the Chicago Tribune's business section ran an article entitled "For restaurant owners, optimism, fear on menu." The article's author, Phil Vettel, mused about problems that might lie ahead when reopening begins in this major city.  Here are the categories and specifics mentioned:


"Occupancy limits and other requirements"

Social distancing, strict customer-count limits, and 6-foot spacing between occupied tables could reduce seating capacity by 50% or more.  Can restaurants earn enough to come out with a profit if capacity is reduced that much?


"Customer Acceptance"

Will dining customers be uncomfortable about being seated among strangers and being served by an anonymous figure hidden behind a mask?  And will their financial situation even allow them to eat dinner out?  And what if  permission to enter required a temperature below 100°? Will customers be willing to submit to "touchless scans checking for elevated temperatures?"


"Lease Terms"

Most restaurants lease their space.  Will the lease deals they get when they reopen force them to pay employees less, shorten their menus, and/or raise prices?  If their leases are up, and they can't negotiate a good deal, might they close up shop and find another line of work?  How many of our

smaller, independent restaurants are we going to lose?



"Generous staffing benefits make minimum wage unattractive; even $15 an hour might not be sufficient to hire workers back, especially if personal safety remains a concern."  


All things considered, the Chicago Tribune article does suggest that we may lose some of our favorite small, independent eateries, especially ethnic ones.  How sad! Because if you’re as tired of your own cooking as I am of mine, you'll put up with any and all uncomfortable changes that come along with dining out. When asked what my favorite meal is, my prompt answer is always, "One that someone else has cooked."  If that someone works in a restaurant kitchen, that’s fine with me.




Pennsylvania State Extension  "Preparing Foodservice Establishments to Reopen During COVID-19 Pandemic" 


Catherine Nettles  Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania Sate University, Department of Food Science


National Restaurant Association "COVID-19 Reopening Guidance"



Chicago Tribune "For restaurant owners, optimism, fear on menu" May 3, 2020.




You must be logged in to post a comment or question.

Sign In or Register for free.