Lifting the Lockdown: How Dining Out Will Be Different When Restaurants Reopen

The Massachusetts Restaurant Association is working with the governor's office, the Department of Public Health and counterparts in seven northeastern states to map out a "Phase One" for when restaurants reopen

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It wasn't so long ago that eating out was easy, but now because of the coronavirus pandemic, some restaurants won't even survive. The ones that do will have to reinvent their business models.

Paul Turano owns the Cook restaurants in Newton and Needham, Massachusetts. With sales down 70%, he's trying to perfect the take-out food model to keep his business alive until he can reopen.

"I think our guests believe in us, and they have reached out and come out to get food and it's great, but sitting down next to another family, with children — I don't know," Turano said.

Once the go-ahead to reopen is given, how will restaurants adapt from a public health perspective?

Sam Scarpino is an assistant professor of marine and environmental sciences and physics at Northeastern University. He also heads the school's Emergent Epidemics Lab, which has been examining coronavirus outbreaks around the world. He says we will need to ensure restaurant workers have adequate protection, both for themselves and for patrons, and that the restaurants will be able to operate in such a way that people can still maintain physical distancing, between individuals in the restaurants.

That's all part of a new plan. Bob Luz, the President and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, is working with the governor's office, the Department of Public Health and his counterparts in seven northeastern states to map out what he calls "Phase One."

"It will probably be reservations only, no walk-ins allowed," Luz said. "I think guests will probably go through a questionnaire of sorts. We'll probably be limited to parties of four to begin with, and probably family members."

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Guests should also expect time limits on the tables, one-way traffic patterns, single-use menus, distanced seating at the bar, more outdoor seating, no salad bars, buffets or self-service food, seniors-only dining hours, and wait staff in masks and gloves.

"That makes for a little unwelcoming — not the normal welcoming, and great feel that we get coming into a restaurant," Luz said. "But I think people are going to understand that's what we gotta do to get where we want to go."

Turano thinks it will be a bumpy road back.

"It will take some of the pleasure out of going out to eat when you're looking at everyone in masks and gloves, and everyone will be nervous," he said. "If someone sneezes, it's going to be an issue. If someone coughs, it's going to be an issue."

Turano says there are a lot of uncertainties moving forward. Restaurants will have to figure out how to turn a profit with a limited capacity, and he wonders if wait staff come back to make significantly less money.

"We're masked up, we're gloved, we're ready to go, but it's definitely going to be very different," Turano said. "We have to plan for a really, really slow ramp-up, and figure out how that will work to make it through this as an industry."

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