woman working at a coffee shop in face mask and shield
Thoughts & Scribbles

We can reopen restaurants. Here’s why we should not.

Across the country, states are allowing retail stores, movie theaters, and restaurants to reopen with restrictions in place to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. And while retail may be able to make the necessary adjustments to minimize risks, the nature of restaurants makes reopening a dangerous proposition.

On a state level, new cases of the novel coronavirus have not been consistently going down, as this graph from the New York Times shows.

Graph of growth of coronavirus cases in Texas Feb. 26 - May 4

And on a national level, more Americans have died from the coronavirus in the past three months than from the entire Vietnam War. So is this really the time to put groups of people into enclosed spaces and encourage them to eat together?

The Logistics

Restaurants are unique. Customers don’t come in to pick something up and leave. They stay for an hour or longer, touching tables, menus, and silverware. They eat and drink, and then provide payment. Plus, restaurants are social, providing an opportunity for people who don’t live in the same household to meet up, infect each other over a meal, and then head home to spread the disease to their families. 

Walk through the process with me: 

You enter a restaurant and get to the host stand. Are there 6 feet of space between the front door and the host stand? In many smaller restaurants, no. That means the restaurant either has to move their host stand back from the door, or install a plastic partition between the host and the guest. 

The host will get disposable menus and silverware for you. Is the host wearing gloves? What else is the host touching, in the course of their duties? They can’t bus tables, answer the phone, or touch a computer without changing their gloves due to cross-contamination.

You’re sat at a sanitized table, and the server comes over to take your order and provide water, which they can’t do from 6 feet away. Then they go to ring in the order on a POS terminal. Gloves off? Every server in the restaurant will touch the terminal, so the potential for cross-contamination is high.  If the server runs your drinks in the same gloves that they used to ring in the order…

Plus, server stations are usually small, enclosed spaces. How do three servers do their jobs in a closet-sized space while maintaining social distancing?

The food is ready, and a masked and gloved server or food runner brings it out to you. It’s impossible for someone to drop off your food from 6 feet away, so they are required to get closer than the CDC recommends. They are wearing a mask. But are you?

On the way back to the kitchen, they see another table has finished their meal. But if they pick up dirty plates, they now have to, again, change their gloves before they can run anyone else’s food or drinks. 

And when the meal is complete, there is payment to be taken. People talk about how filthy money is, but when is the last time you cleaned your credit cards? So you hand over a contaminated credit card to your server, who swipes it through the POS, adding your card’s bacteria to the reader. 

There’s a drink up at the bar, but the server can’t run it to the table because their gloves have touched your credit card and the POS, so it can’t come in contact with a guest’s glass…

And all of this for a 25% capacity that may not be enough to earn any kind of profit — if people even come out. Personally, I know I won’t be going to a restaurant for a while still, however badly I want to. 

Giant corporations like Starbucks and McDonald’s can afford to put plexiglass partitions between every booth and install touchless payment systems. My local coffee shop cannot. Faced with the choice to open with minimal protections in place, or to not open at all and send their customers to the major chains while bills go unpaid, what are they to do?

What it Means

For a restaurant to operate, employees must be in close contact with both each other and with their customers. While some may be able to reconfigure their service style, providing counter service only or converting an outdoor space into an alfresco dining area, many small restaurants cannot.  

Staff costs will be reduced some, but probably not as much as you might think. Restaurants may need to compartmentalize jobs in an attempt to minimize cross-contamination. So instead of just having a few servers, they may need servers, plus dedicated food runners and bussers to prevent the same people from touching clean and dirty plates. 

Plus, staff will no longer be eligible for their unemployment benefits, and they’ll be making a fraction of what they used to. 

Larry Lynch of the National Restaurant Association told ABC News “I think [restaurant operators] know what to do to make the restaurants safe. They’ve been doing that for years. Now they’re just building on that.” 

The idea that standard restaurant practices can be adjusted to prevent the spread of an airborne illness with just a few tweaks is laughable. The kitchens in independent restaurants are often tiny. If it takes three chefs to run a kitchen, and the line is less than 12 feet long (which is not uncommon), then what? The kitchen staff will be unable to maintain proper distancing. And that doesn’t take into account the constant parade of staff in and out of the kitchen, and the parade of guests in and out of the building. 

Watch this video to see how one study anticipates the spread of the virus through restaurants. 

I’m not a scientist, doctor, or policy expert. 

But I am a fierce supporter of restaurants and restaurant workers. Allowing restaurants to open, even at a reduced capacity, will lead to the further spread of illness. It’s allergy season in central Texas, and asymptomatic carriers could be sneezing their way through the spring, spreading infection wherever they go. We have insufficient testing and not enough information yet about the virus. And in a state with 5 million uninsured residents, inviting that kind of risk shows a reckless disregard for our most vulnerable population.

I want restaurants to reopen. I want to go out to dinner with my husband, and I want my service industry friends and family members to go back to work.

But more than that, I want them to stay alive. So I won’t be going out to eat, and I won’t be encouraging my restaurateur friends to reopen anytime soon.

State governments around the U.S. are allowing restaurants to open with certain restrictions. But operating food establishments safely is about more than social distancing.

Header photo by dapiki moto on Unsplash

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