U.S. Restaurants Grapple with Pandemic Dilemma: When, and How, Should They Reopen?

With lockdown restrictions lifting in parts of the country, business owners are eager to get back to work but wary of welcoming guests and staff back to dining rooms

U.S. Restaurants Grapple with Pandemic Dilemma: When, and How, Should They Reopen?
Aria Restaurant in Atlanta can reopen for limited service, but the owners have opted to wait for now. (LuAnne DeMeo)
May 6, 2020

After nearly two months of widespread lockdowns throughout the United States, some states are beginning to reopen, giving the hard-hit restaurant industry the opportunity to start dusting itself off in parts of the country. Many are eager to rehire staff and begin digging out of the financial holes they find themselves in.

But with the COVID-19 coronavirus continuing to spread, many Americans still hesitant about returning to public life, and countless unknowns remaining, restaurateurs are facing the complicated decision of whether or not to reopen—and how to proceed if they do.

"There's just so many questions," said Gretchen Thomas, vice president of food and beverage innovations at Barcelona Wine Bar. "We have to reopen in a completely bizarro world environment and we just don't have that playbook." The wine-centric Spanish tapas brand will keep all its 17 locations closed for now, even in Texas, Georgia and certain parts of Florida, where restaurants are now permitted to reopen at 25 percent capacity.

Most larger restaurant chains were quick to make moves in such regions. By May 4, Landry's, which operates hundreds of restaurants under brands such as Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, Morton's and Mastro's, reopened all its locations where stay-at-home orders were lifted. So has Darden Restaurants, another big group with brands such as Capital Grille and Seasons 52. They'll continue "market by market," as states allow, according to Brian Phillips, the company's furloughed wine director, who is working on limited projects for now.

Those states have numerous requirements and recommendations restaurants will need to follow, such as spacing tables 6 feet apart, limiting parties to a maximum of six people, encouraging everyone to wear masks, and not allowing guests to congregate in waiting areas.

Each safety measure brings its own host of complexities and logistical issues. "It's not as simple as, OK, let's mark off some tables and chairs and tell people they can't sit here," said Thomas. How exactly to transform operations, retrain staff and reeducate guests to fit this new normal—all while maintaining the upbeat energy of the dining experience—are among the many questions restaurateurs are facing.

An uphill battle into uncharted territory

For some businesses, all those details add up to a mountain of challenges that's too dangerous to climb with so many unknowns. "Mathematically, it makes no sense," said owner Farshid Arshid of Umi in Atlanta, a modern Japanese eatery that used to serve upwards of 300 guests on a busy night, but would be limited to about 60 in compliance with state rules of having only 10 people per 500 square feet.

After several weeks with its new takeout and delivery model, Arshid says the team has finally hit its stride. He says it's not worth risking that with a reopening that may be premature. "It's like throwing another monkey wrench in the program."

Arshid is one of the many owners taking a wait-and-see approach to reopening, while he debates unprecedented questions about how to serve guests. "How do you explain the food to a customer with a mask on your face?" Arshid asks. He worries guests will ask for their check the moment someone nearby coughs or rubs their nose. "I just think that we're still a little bit too sensitive and a little paranoid."

Any wrong moves could mean catastrophe for this already-struggling sector. Another question Arshid has been discussing with industry peers: "What if we open these next two weeks, what if this thing really spreads, and then we have to remain closed until October?"

A dry run

Though the 25 percent capacity limit is a deal breaker for many businesses, Texas chef and restaurateur Tim Love is taking advantage of the restriction, treating this time period as a practice run of sorts. "We're looking at it completely differently," Love told Wine Spectator.

Since his company closed its dining rooms March 15, he's been laser-focused on getting back in business, keeping the entire management staff on board to prepare for a predicted May 1 reopening, which wound up being spot on. "We stayed focused on the end game, the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "We're doing it because we're prepared."

III Forks cellar
The wine cellar at III Forks Steakhouse is open again as Texas lifts restaurant shutdowns. (Photo Courtesy III Forks)

Love reopened nearly all of his 15 venues May 1, the first day Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order allowed, including his three Wine Spectator Restaurant Award–winning locations of the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro.

"I've had a lot of restaurateurs call me like, 'How can you make money at 25 percent?' And I'm like, 'I can't, and that's not the focus of what we're doing,'" he said, likening it to a standard soft opening. "At 25 percent, that allows us to take the time and treat everything properly, and teach our guests the new normal as well."

All employees will be tested for COVID-19. When they arrive for work, all employees will have their temperatures logged, including any pickup or delivery workers entering the building. Back-of-house staff will wear gloves and masks, and servers will wear masks and be required to wash their hands every 30 minutes. All guests will have their temperatures logged alongside their name and email, and given wristbands to indicate they've been screened.

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This way, if someone does become ill, Love's team would have a record of the person's time in the restaurant and be able to take appropriate actions like informing patrons and employees who may have been exposed. "Everything's about communication," he said.

Love says his team is exceptionally eager to get back to work. But other restaurateurs raised the concern of bringing employees off of unemployment and back onto a payroll where they'll make less with fewer guests in the dining room.

Small steak-house chain III Forks reopened its Texas locations May 1, feeling confident after six weeks of preparing "measures that exceed CDC and government recommendations," company president Curtis Osmond told Wine Spectator via email. "We have always operated knowing our employees and guests count on us to make wise decisions. We don't take the responsibility lightly." They've been able to leverage their large dining rooms to spread out seating, and have turned most tables into physical barriers and sanitation stations.

If they rebuild it, will guests come?

Underscoring all these efforts is the question of whether guests are ready to venture out to restaurants again. Both Love and Arshid think their communities are split on the subject.

Polling suggests most Americans are still uneasy about the idea of going out to eat. According to a Washington Post–University of Maryland poll, 22 percent of surveyed Americans would be comfortable eating out at a restaurant right now. A Morning Consult survey similarly found only 18 percent of respondents would be comfortable dining out.

Wine director Andres Loaiza of Aria Restaurant in Atlanta hears that lack of confidence firsthand from the 80 customers he interacts with each day as he helps with pickups and deliveries. It's one of the reasons Aria is holding off on dining room service.

They're hoping to open back up in the next two weeks, but like all owners with closed dining rooms interviewed for this story, they're reevaluating day by day. "'It's too early,' is what everybody is saying to me," Loaiza said. "I think everybody's looking forward to gathering again. But I think when you're actually making the decision of, 'Should I go out tomorrow and go to a restaurant,' I think everybody pulls back a little bit and thinks, 'You know, let me wait a couple of weeks. We've done it this long.'"

But there are reasons to be optimistic. The III Forks team said guests started booking reservations as soon as the governor made the announcement, and they've seen early success in their first several days of operations, approaching capacity most nights. "While there are certainly people who will hesitate to join us in our dining rooms, there are many more eager to support the amazing men and women on our teams," Osmond said. They expect to gradually move to full capacity, as the state allows, over the next few weeks.

"It's just a slow confidence builder, that's all it is," Love said. "And we as chefs and restaurateurs have an obligation to do everything we can to make people feel comfortable and understand that we're doing the best that we can to make it safe."

Surrounded by so many unknowns, industry professionals are taking comfort in the fact that humans are social by nature, and the pull back to restaurants remains strong. The innate need to serve that underlies the entire hospitality industry remains strong too.

"It's in our blood," said Richard King, whose Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth, Texas, will reopen May 7. King says they've been flooded with calls and messages and patrons who can't wait to come in. "We're so, so excited to get out there again and see our guests and talk to them and embrace them in our home, finally, after they've been stuck in theirs."

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