Johanna Reed | April 30, 2020

And what are restaurants doing to protect us?

Eating out is one of our favorite reasons to travel and it’s an ideal way to experience other cultures in between trips. With pandemic lockdowns starting to slowly ease, going to a restaurant might be our first taste of travel in a COVID-19 world. But just how safe will it be?

We Touch Too Much

Most of us have become a lot more germ-aware and hyperconscious about what we touch (and for those of you who haven’t, please start now!). At least until a COVID-19 vaccine is available, dining in restaurants is going to be very different than it was.

Consider the things you can’t avoid touching at a typical restaurant: You open the door when you arrive. You pull your chair out from the table and then pull it in as you sit down, touching at least two different spots with each hand. Then you look through the menu. After that, you pick up your napkin, glass, and cutlery, and bring them to your lips—an easy vector for germs to enter your body. You hope and assume that the person who put the latter items on your table had scrupulously clean hands. It’s unlikely that the doors, chairs, and menus can be pristine, although the CDC is advising restaurants consider disposable menus.

Handwashing Made Easier

William Heinecke, Chairman of Thailand’s Minor Hotels Group, which includes luxe properties like Anantara and NH Collection, says, “There’s going to be so much more attention to cleanliness and hand-washing.” He expects to see antiseptic handwashing stations everywhere.

Some cultures already take handwashing seriously. Walk into a fast-food restaurant in Malaysia, for example, and there’s often a sink for handwashing not too far from the tables. While it’s unlikely we’ll see sinks added into existing eateries’ dining rooms, perhaps they’ll become the norm for new builds. More likely are handwashing stations just outside of restrooms, to avoid hand contamination by opening the restroom door. Automatic doors, or at least foot levers like the StepNpull, will be more frequent. Otherwise, bottles of hand sanitizer may need to take the place of the salt and pepper.

Physical Distancing

Dr. William Spangler, Global Medical Director with AIG Travel, says “medically speaking, six feet of separation is still going to be what doctors recommend.” Harvard researchers say to expect intermittent physical distancing into 2022. “Many restaurants will likely need to revamp floor plans to promote social distancing,” says Spangler, “either because of government requirements or new social norms/expectations.” You can expect tables beside you to be empty or removed altogether. There’ll be limits on how many people are at each table too, likely no more than four for a while.

Physical distancing will be necessary everywhere. If coat checks remain, don’t expect anyone to help you don and doff your jacket. You may not even want your coat handled by a stranger, let alone hung next to someone else’s while you dine. No more waiting in crowded foyers for your table to be ready; let’s hope there’s an alternative to the now ubiquitous grocery store lineup. Once you sit down, your waiter will need to step back while taking your order and break physical distancing rules to serve your dinner. Physical distancing needs to take place in restrooms too, already too small in many eateries.

In the back of the house, physical distancing is a greater challenge. Kitchens and service areas are small and will need to have fewer staff. Physical distancing means changing practices, too. Staff meals will need to change, as will servers getting a taste of that night’s specials so they can describe them to you. Another example: rather than passing a dish from hand to hand, it’s now safer for staff members to leave a dish on a counter and step back before someone else picks it up, as is the new rule at Wynn Las Vegas. Assume it will take longer to get things done.

Perhaps Required but Not Necessarily Effective: Gloves and Masks

While it’s easy to assume that wearing gloves during food preparation is safer, pre-COVID studies show that gloves provide a false sense of security. Many kitchen staff don’t wash their hands prior to glove use and put them on and off near the food they’re preparing, potentially spraying contaminants in the process. Wearing gloves doesn’t prevent a person from touching multiple surfaces or giving themselves a scratch before going right back to food prep either.

Kitchen staff who wear gloves tend not to change them when they switch tasks, don’t notice punctures, and wear them longer than recommended. Most importantly, gloves prevent the tactile feedback of realizing when hands feel dirty which prompts frequent washing. A 2011 Centers for Disease Control study concluded that “workers washed their hands in only 27% of activities in which they should have” and “workers were more likely to wash their hands at the right time when they were not wearing gloves than when they were.”

While new health regulations might make gloves mandatory, it might be safer without them. Handwashing is essential, and a device like PathSpot scans hands in two seconds to verify if they’ve been washed well.

When used properly, masks can be effective at preventing the spread of illness. But “properly” is the keyword. In a hot kitchen, it’s easy to imagine staff adjusting their masks to breathe better and then going right back to touching food without washing their hands or changing gloves. Chefs need to smell what they’re cooking and do periodic seasoning checks with their array of tasting spoons. Removing a mask to do so contaminates both the mask and their hands.

Many public health officials are now advising us to wear homemade masks when we’re away from our homes. If that applies to restaurants, diners will need a safe place to put their mask while they eat. They’ll want to ensure their hands are clean when they put their mask back on again too. A lot of questions are yet to be resolved.

Tech to the Rescue

New tech will affect restaurant safety, as it will affect post-pandemic hotel safety. For example, some restaurants may use infrared scanners to be sure guests and staff don’t enter with a fever (and may insist on signing health declaration forms). Given how dirty cellphones are, your fellow diners may balk if you use your phone’s flashlight to read the menu; perhaps restaurants will adopt iPad menus or e-menus with backlights.

Tech will be used for cleaning too. Rich Cortese of Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico says, “We plan to add the UV light air purifying AC system to all our restaurants and meeting spaces, as well as new sanitation stations throughout the property.” Hyatt is also ionizing rooms for two hours and scanning everyone for fevers. The Malibu Beach Inn, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, partnered with Stratus Building Solutions to use electrostatic tools that combine sanitizing chemicals and electrostatic molecules to bring a deeper clean to their Carbon Beach Club Restaurant and throughout the property.

Tech also helps with contactless service. Waving your credit card is preferable over punching in your PIN, signing a receipt, or handing over cash. Wired describes how some restaurants are adopting the Tock platform which allows guests to pay in advance when they order online. For now, it’s for ordering takeout, but when restaurant dining returns it will eliminate the need to touch menus and have a waiter take your order. Tock can help restaurants book in-house dining to specific time slots to better manage physical distancing and reduce the guesswork of how many guests will show, allowing better use of resources and managing restaurants’ notoriously thin margins.

The Environment Will Take a Hit

More frequent cleaning, stronger chemicals, and more single-use items mean we’ll backtrack on the recent progress we’ve made in making restaurants greener.

Tabletop condiments like salt, pepper, ketchup, nuoc cham, and Sriracha will disappear, replaced by single-use containers—disposable for lower-end restaurants but washable at higher-end ones. Menus will be either single-use paper or plasticized so they can be sanitized after each use. Straws may make a comeback, and many guests will want them wrapped in paper.

Service Will Change

It used to be the norm for restaurant staff to do whatever it takes. A waiter would refill water glasses, clear a plate, and deliver a fresh dish from the kitchen, regardless of whether it was for a table under their responsibility or not. With the pandemic, that needs to change; consequences include less efficient service and the need for more staff.

With COVID-19, staff should wash their hands (or change their gloves) after clearing the dirty plate of one diner and before delivering a fresh dish to another. Water glasses will need to be refilled without touching them. Napkin service—when a server puts your napkin on your lap for you and refolds it when you step away from the table—will stop. Studies have tested how long the COVID-causing virus lives on plastic, cardboard, and metal. We don’t know how long it lives on fabric and restaurants aren’t going to take a chance just for a prettily refolded napkin.

No Buffets, at Least for Now

Buffets are going to disappear for a while. Karen Whitt is the President of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association and VP of the Turks & Caicos’ Hartling Group. When talking about “Heartful Hartling Hospitality” at their three properties, she says, “With food and beverage, we will forego the buffet model at the onset and have sit-down-menu order options across all meals.”

When and if buffets do come back, both restaurants and customers will need to treat them differently. Sneeze guards look effective, but the handles of serving utensils are a bigger problem at the buffet table. Staff will need to provide side plates so that the utensils don’t get left in the food, replace them regularly, and be much more vigilant to remove an entire dish if the handles have touched any food. Customers will need to sanitize their hands every time they go up to the buffet as well as before they eat.

New Rules and Regulations

“Going forward, food preparation, service, and hygiene will need to be totally overhauled to be sure we eliminate any risk of cross-contamination and protect our staff and guests,” says Heath Dhana, of the Elewana Collection of safari lodges in Kenya and Tanzania. Both staff and customers will need to be aware of new ways of doing things. Like many restaurants, the Town Meeting Bistro at the Relais & Châteaux Inn at Hastings Park “is developing a set of procedures and guidelines…which will be outlined for audiences including guests and associates,” says hotelier Trisha Perez Kennedy. The challenge will be delivering the same levels of hospitality and gracious service they’re known for, while not compromising safety.

Restaurants within larger brands will have company-wide policies to follow. Hilton, for example, partnered with RB/Lysol and the Mayo Clinic for their Hilton CleanStay program which is adapting hospital hygiene standards for Hilton’s restaurants, guest rooms, and throughout their hotels. Phil Cordell, Hilton’s global head of new brand development, says “the expectation of what cleanliness means has changed. It is less about removing dirt from surfaces and more about killing viruses. With consumers more conscious of cleaning and hygiene practices…there is an expectation that companies will share with consumers what changes they are making to protect them.”

The U.S. National Restaurant Association issued COVID restaurant reopening guidelines and Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of the Hong Kong-based Black Sheep Restaurant Group, published thorough COVID-19 standard operating procedures, providing values-based advice to other restaurants that might want to adopt them and showing guests what they can expect.

Helping Our Fave Restaurants Stay in Business

The restaurant business was never an easy one and is much harder under COVID-19. We’ve been able to keep enjoying restaurants under physical distancing rules via takeout and delivery. That service is likely to continue for a while, but did you know you might not be helping your favorite restaurant if you’re using a delivery app? As Wired reports, delivery apps often gouge restaurants with exorbitant fees. Picking up your order yourself or calling directly for delivery will better help restaurants stay alive.

How essential the food supply chain is and how restaurants give soul to our communities is now much more apparent. Perhaps we’re finally ready to guarantee a living wage and benefits to those who feed us, including paid sick leave so food remains safe for all of us. This, as well as all the COVID-19 changes, will mean increases in how much it costs to eat out so that restaurants can be profitable and sustainable.

No Matter How Clean the Restaurant, It’s Still on You to Protect Everyone’s Health

No matter how many COVID-19 changes a restaurant makes, each of us needs to take more personal responsibility to protect ourselves and the people around us. We need new habits, like washing hands not only before we eat but afterward—it’s inevitable we’ll touch our lips, even if we could learn to eat chicken wings with a fork and knife. Licking sticky fingers or pulling a bone from our mouths can’t happen at restaurants unless followed by thorough hand sanitizing. We’ll need to keep our filthy phones off the table and resist the urge to check messages and snap photos for Instagram. And we’ll need to clean our hands again before we pay the check, push in a chair, or touch the door on the way out of the restaurant.

Bonus: All of these actions will keep us safe not only from COVID-19 but from all the other restaurant-related illnesses that we should have always been more careful about (hear that, norovirus?). As Heinecke says, “at the end of this, we’re going to be healthier, [with] less chance of another pandemic.”