What Restaurant Owners Need to Know About Seating and COVID

What Restaurant Owners Need to Know About Seating and COVID

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COVID-19 has completely shaken up the restaurant industry, forcing restaurateurs to adapt to survive. Some businesses have shifted their operations away from in-person service, instead only doing takeout and delivery.

Certain cities have expanded access to public spaces, giving more restaurants the option to serve diners outdoors. In cases where outdoor seating just isn't an option, restaurants have had to innovate by switching up their menu and services.

The only commonality is that none of them have been completely unphased. By following CDC guidelines and utilizing available resources, restaurant owners can find a way to weather this storm.

CDC Guidelines for Restaurants

To help restaurant owners protect their customers and employees, the CDC released detailed considerations for restaurants and bars upon reopening.

Restaurants should follow these guidelines in coordination with state and local rules and regulations. Since COVID-19 spreads person-to-person, the main goal that restaurateurs should have is reducing interactions as much as possible.

Limiting service to takeout, delivery, and curbside pick-up is still the safest approach. The second best option is to limit in-person dining to an outdoor seating area. Indoor dining should only resume at a reduced capacity and if tables are spaced at least six feet apart.

The CDC outlines many other recommendations for restaurant owners, from promoting healthy behaviors to maintaining a healthy environment. This includes things like requiring employees to wear face masks and regularly sanitizing all frequently touched surfaces. Employees who are sick or have had close contact with a COVID-positive person should stay home and monitor their health. If possible, there should be designated entry and exit doors to promote one-way traffic.

Restaurant operators should ensure proper ventilation and air circulation. They can do so by keeping windows and doors open and utilizing outdoor spaces.

Temporary Outdoor Seating Areas

If your establishment doesn't already have a patio or backyard, that doesn't necessarily mean outdoor seating isn't an option. In cities like Leesburg, VA and Raleigh, NC, restaurant owners can apply for a temporary license to expand their seating area onto public property like sidewalks and parking lots. Restaurants must comply with certain rules to keep their temporary license — they can't block fire lanes, for example.

Raleigh businesses can consult the city's outdoor seating extension guide for more information about the requirements for a temporary license. According to the FAQ section, restaurants don't need to get a temporary license to expand seating onto private property. Instead, they must have permission from the property owner as well as adhere to ADA and Emergency Egress rules and regulations. There may also be certain insurance requirements.

Before you completely write off utilizing outdoor spaces, check with your local government to see if they are offering a temporary license to expand and if it's right for you. These licenses usually don't have any fees and are available to businesses in the beverage industry as well — including breweries, bottle shops, and wine shops. Some of these resources expire soon, though, so it may not be quite as helpful now. There are a number of other things that may prevent establishments from seating outdoors as well.

Drawbacks of Outdoor Seating

Unless a restaurant already has patio or porch dining, expanding outdoors would mean investing in durable, weatherproof outdoor furniture as well as outdoor lighting equipment. Awnings, umbrellas, waterproof cushions for benches and stools, and other patio furniture definitely don't come cheap. If it's only going to be a temporary expansion, it doesn't make fiscal sense to invest in outdoor furniture and equipment. Using indoor furniture and renting canopies or tents could be an alternative, but it provides less ventilation and you still run the risk of damaging your furniture. Not to mention, the staff would have to set it up and break it down every day.

There's a host of other reasons why outdoor seating may not work for certain businesses. For one thing, summer is almost over and restaurants in colder climates won't be able to continue seating outside much longer. Bad weather is a big disadvantage to outdoor dining. Especially if you don't invest in umbrellas, your guests could end up getting soaked if there's a sudden rain shower. Restaurant owners would have to constantly monitor the weather to decide if it's even worth opening that day. This kind of uncertainty causes a lot of stress in a time where anxieties are already pretty high. Some restaurateurs may be better off finding other solutions.

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Creative Spatial Solutions

For some restaurants, incorporating some form of indoor service may be the only viable option they have to survive. Depending on what COVID phase the local and state government is in, it may or may not be allowed. Of course, indoor tables would need to be placed at least six feet apart to promote social distancing. This requirement substantially reduces the maximum occupancy, so some creative reconfiguration of the space is necessary to make it feasible. Maximize seating by utilizing open tables and booths. Avoid high tops and bars, as these are difficult to adapt to social distancing guidelines. Installing barriers between booths may allow you to forgo the six-foot rule, but keep in mind it isn't a completely risk-free solution.

Resuming indoor operations requires a lot of new safety measures to be put in place. Some recommendations include having a dedicated entrance for employees, using digital menus, and having a designated loading/unloading zone. There should be clearly visible signs that direct the flow of customers and document new safety protocols. No matter how good the food is, most customers won't go into an establishment they don't feel safe in right now. This signage reassures guests that their safety is a priority. It's important to remember that restricting service to takeout and delivery is the best way to prevent COVID-19 spread, and serving customers indoors or outdoors still has its risks.

Adapting Operations

If it can be done, shifting operations away from in-person dining is clearly still the best solution for restaurants at this time. Focusing on takeout, curbside pickup, and delivery has been enough to keep plenty of businesses afloat. With more people searching for food online, little-known restaurants have actually garnished more exposure. Some online ordering platforms have temporarily waived fees for independent restaurants, but it's important to read the fine print. In certain cases, these costs were deferred, not waived. A few restaurants have sidestepped this issue by creating their own online ordering platforms, but that requires technical savvy.

Some restaurateurs have used this moment to innovate and create new menus and services. Out of chaos comes opportunity, right? Investing in a food truck isn't a bad idea right now. Unlike buying outdoor furniture for a temporary license to serve outside, you could still use the truck if things ever go back to normal. Several restaurants have turned their signature dishes into meal kits that patrons can purchase and cook at home. As long as you aren't worried about your secret recipe getting out, it's a great way to connect with your customers. You could even upsell the packages to include merchandise or virtual cooking classes. Less face-to-face interaction means you have to find creative ways to give your customers a unique experience.

Navigating this pandemic as a restaurant owner is challenging, to say the least. Ever-changing rules, regulations, and guidelines on federal, state, and local levels are nearly impossible to keep up with. Most restaurateurs are just taking things a day at a time, doing their best to protect their employees and guests. The restaurant industry may never be the same after this pandemic, but not necessarily in a bad way.

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