Restaurant owners now understand that the dining changes caused by COVID-19 will persist through 2021. Dining will not return to normal; dining will develop a new normal. COVID-19 has disrupted the restaurant industry more than any other, with seated diners fully 99% fewer than 2019, according to OpenTable data, during the entire month of April. Even yesterday, seated diners remain 57% fewer than one year ago.
The U.S. has passed a grim milestone of 1,000 COVID-19 deaths per day, with yesterday’s tally north of 1,100 victims. With over 72,219 new cases today and a total 4 million cases, the U.S. is risking an inexorable path toward herd immunity unless the pharmaceutical industry’s Operation Warp Speed can identify and administer a vaccine soon.
Graphic by The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic (CC BY-NC-4.0)
Coronavirus protections will create new patterns and habits that will stick with society after the pandemic passes. Drive-thru windows and on-demand food delivery, which proved strong product-market fit pre-COVID-19, are now permanently cemented. People will still want to sit down for dining occasionally. However, they will seek new options that allow them to socially distance in safety and comfort.
Texas Roadhouse (NASDAQ:TXRH) franchisees are installing permanent glass partitions between each table to limit the spread of respiratory droplets. In addition to other safety measures like heightened cleaning regimens, complimentary hand sanitizer, and mask-wearing, the restaurant has adopted a touchless ordering and checkout system using only scannable QR codes.
Plexiglass dividers and digital menus are the way of the future for many restaurants, creating less waste and exposing diners to less contagion. When was the last time anyone remembers seeing a physical menu at a fast food restaurant, anyway? Diners will adapt, and appreciate small changes to remain safe.
There are many more examples of the new normal, including complimentary hand sanitizer dispensers aside doorways, and more frequent restroom cleaning. Proper disinfection is also a permanent new normal, with guests rightfully dissatisfied with simply smearing surfaces with damp cloths. Indeed, patrons have been asking restaurant owners to provide these services for years, anyway. Restaurateurs are overdue in elevating their cleaning practices, so now is the time to instill habits in staff regarding hourly cleaning regimens for high-touch surfaces.
Another example of restaurants changing norms arrived this week, when McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) instructed all of its operators to mandate mask-wearing for both employees and guests (except while seated). Its move echoed mandates from other major chains including Chipotle, Walmart, Target, Kohl’s and Starbucks.
Mandatory guest mask-wearing also escalates McDonald’s safety upgrades beyond McDonald’s 59 page manual from May regarding COVID-19 cleanliness requirements. Although some guests will inevitably decline to wear a mask, McDonald’s has thought of that too, and has policies regarding treating these situations in a positive way with expedited service and safety follow-ups.
Official guidance for restaurateurs from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can be accessed here.