What to Expect When Restaurants Reopen—and How to Stay Safe If You Dine Out

Health and safety experts are teaming up to develop the best plan for reopening restaurants after the coronavirus shutdowns. Learn from pros on the front lines of restaurants to learn how they're adjusting to the new landscape.

As restaurants around the country prepare to reopen, they are navigating unchartered food safety territory. While each state’s rules, regulations, and opening schedules vary, expect face masks, more strict rules about reservations, increased use of disposable dishware, and more.

“Rest assured that food code really governs safety: temps are correct, cross-contamination is limited, and sick workers must stay home. A lot will actually be invisible to the diner, like more frequent cleaning and disinfecting,” explains Larry Lynch, the senior vice president for Science and Industry for Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association (NRA). “The restaurateurs understand the importance of the health and well-being of the consumers and their staff.”

No one, even the CDC (yep, we asked them directly!), has an exact road map for how to restructure the dining room and kitchen. But the NRA drafted a “Recovery Blueprint” as restaurants adjust to new safety protocols, and the FDA also released a best practices guide for dine-in, takeout, and delivery during the pandemic. (Reminder: The virus is still very much impacting and infecting humans daily, so until a vaccine becomes available, and perhaps even after, a lot of these restaurant changes we discuss here will stick.)

Lynch says that it’s important to remember that the business owners are just like us: learning and adjusting each day and trying to keep themselves and their families safe. Expect frequent communication, be flexible, and check their website or call before venturing out, as many restaurants may hold off on opening until they feel it is safe or financially sustainable.

Before you enjoy a meal in a restaurant dining room for the first time post-pandemic shutdown, learn about what you can expect and how you can prepare to be a safe, smart, and supportive diner.

female waiter at a table in a busy restaurant
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Cramped and communal tables will be a thing of the past.

Although they’re space-efficient and pretty for photos, don’t expect to be rubbing elbows at long, shareable farmhouse tables or cozy banquettes any time soon.

“Distancing requirements and occupancy restrictions will create a much more spacious experience. This will result in a lower energy and noise level, which may make the experience a bit more awkward for a time,” says Justin Hill, principal at MG2, a global architecture and retail strategy firm based in Seattle, Washington.

In the fine-dining sector, Hill predicts that private dining rooms may see a resurgence, and decor (such as plants and art) may increase to act as barriers between tables and people.

The NRA suggests that restaurant owners update floor plans to allow for at least six feet of separation between unrelated dining parties, and maximum table size must remain under the limit approved by the CDC or the local government. Floor markings might also become commonplace to delineate six feet.

“Groups typically congregate around bars, but you’re not going to see that. The greeting, seating, and tables will be more distant than in the past,” Lynch says.

Expect more concise menus.

“When restaurants reopen, they may have to limit their menu offerings for cost or supply chain reasons,” Hill says.

Two big tough-to-anticipate factors? The meat supply decreasing after many processing plant outbreaks, and how many people will actually be ready to dine out.

Restaurant owners won’t want to buy ingredients for a huge menu of offerings if they can’t closely guess how many orders they’ll have each week.

And unfortunately, Hill adds, your list of local restaurants will likely be smaller too.

“Sadly many neighborhood restaurants simply won’t come back,” he says. (So be sure to support your local small businesses in whatever way you feel safe, now and as they open back up.)

Restaurant worker wearing a face mask
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The staff will be masked.

Servers will no longer linger over your table explaining every sauce and garnish, and most will be wearing masks and gloves.

“You will see face coverings wherever you go. I think guests will see it as a mark of responsibility,” Lynch says.

Obviously, diners can’t follow suit while eating and drinking, but some restaurants are also asking people to wear masks while waiting, when picking up takeout, or while interacting with a host as they enter and leave.

Tech will be used more than ever.

All those parents who scolded, “no phones at the table” might have to change their tune. The NRA suggests that tech solutions should be used whenever possible to limit person-to-person contact. For example, mobile ordering and menu tablets, contactless payment (“so there are fewer people touching your credit card,” Lynch explains), and possibly reservation-only or call-ahead seating to better space diners.

To cut down on any congregating in waiting areas, “many places will ask you to call ahead or make an online reservation, then they will text you when your table is ready so there’s no waiting inside,” Lynch says.

Buffets may fade away.

“Self-serve stations for condiments or soda will disappear,” Hill says.

At family or fast-casual restaurants, limited table service might become more common to reduce how much and how many customers are moving around.

As far as buffets and salad bars go, it depends heavily on the state. Texas is allowing buffets if the food is served by employees. Utah has banned buffets. And the 97-location chain Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes decided it was all too risky and threw in the towel: as of May 7, they announced they are closing every store.

“The biggest issue with buffets is the serve ware and respecting the sneeze guards. Having an employee serve the food somewhat mitigates this, but of course comes at a higher labor cost,” Hill says.

Takeout and delivery will continue to dominate.

“Takeout and delivery will likely continue,” Lynch says.

Many restaurants and bars have also begun offering to-go cocktails, wine, and beer. The legislation around that is yet to be determined, but will surely be discussed since drink sales can be a nice financial supplement for the businesses. (In a usual year, the average restaurant makes 20% to 25% of its revenue from adult drinks, according to Modern Restaurant Management.)

Outdoor space will become more useful and utilized than ever.

In Florida, where Lynch lives, some towns are closing off streets so restaurants can shift tables and chairs al fresco.

“I think restaurants, large and small, will expand into any and all available public space. Sidewalks, parking lots, patios, green areas are all likely to be utilized,” Hill says, adding that many restaurants will need to invest in new covers or temporary enclosures to plan ahead for inclement weather.

Beyond being a pro at all things supermarket shopping tips and tricks, Natalie Seymour, a food safety extension associate at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, is helping to train restaurants in her state as they prepare to reopen dining areas. In addition to how the restaurants are adjusting, “there is a lot that the customer can do when dining out. The risky part is being around people who may have the virus and touching common surfaces,” Seymour says.

Hands down, the most important thing you can do is not go out to eat when you have symptoms of COVID-19 or if you think you have been exposed to the virus.

“Keep six feet of distance from other guests and staff whenever possible, wash your hands often, and use hand sanitizer where it’s available,” she adds.

Since everyone is learning and pivoting so much, be patient during the dining out experience. Service may be slightly slower than usual.

“Many people want to get to some normal rhythms and support local businesses, which is great, but it’s also important to follow steps with social distancing, hand hygiene, and staying home when sick to do your part in protecting everyone else,” Seymour says. “And if dining out still makes you nervous, by all means, order takeout and eat outside or at home.”

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