The coronavirus pandemic has hit the food and beverage industry particularly hard, as restaurants and bars have been closed for in-room dining and drinks for weeks. Many have shifted to takeout and delivery only — some have shut down altogether.
However, businesses - including restaurants - will soon be able to reopen their doors in a phased approach.
Restaurant owners are now trying to figure out whether or not they will open back up for seated customers and if so, how to go about it.
On WJCT News’ First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross Wednesday, Allison D'Aurizio, co-owner of 1748 Bakehouse in Springfield, said she plans to continue with the eatery’s current takeout and “bodega” model, even when dining rooms are allowed to fully reopen.
“We feel like we just got into a healthy rhythm. We just don't feel particularly safe opening up our dining room without more science coming out, and asking our employees, our families and our customers to run that risk. You know, we've only been open six months, and we've completely pivoted the business model virtually overnight. And now we're being asked to change it again,” she explained.
D'Aurizio went on to add, “We're just really unsure with no vaccine, no real antibody tests. It just seems not prudent to put our staff and our customers at risk.”
Lauren Titus, editor of Edible Northeast Florida, said she’s spoken to many restaurateurs who are equally hesitant.
“One fear is there's a recurrence of the virus and they have to go through this all over again,” she said. “Granted it's a tremendous strain on their businesses, but for the safety and the health of the community at large. Why not wait another couple of months?”
Titus also noted that some restaurants that do reopen for dine-in service may go above and beyond the government’s guidelines due to concerns about the well being of their staff and patrons.
“What about menus? You know, do you hand the same menu to customers one right after another? Do you have room in your dining room to spread out six feet, if six feet is even enough? And what about the ventilation system? Does that carry the droplets from customer to customer? It's something that each restaurateur is taking into consideration, and some are going to have an easier time, but some, like a fine dining establishment, may be extremely challenged to figure out how to accommodate that and preserve their dining experience,” Titus said.
Additionally, many restaurateurs are concerned about unknowns surrounding their potential liability, such as what happens if a dine-in patron goes on to test positive for COVID-19 and contact tracing comes back to their establishment?
D'Aurizio said, “We reached out to our insurance carrier and, you know, they just don't know. This is obviously unprecedented. And with the contact tracing, what would happen to our business if we became a hot spot? It would ruin our business whether, you know, we were taking every safety precaution imaginable, if it were to be traced back to us. And it's not just the financial liability, it's the liability of knowing that we contributed to, perhaps someone's death or a family getting sick. We're just not willing to take that risk.”
Whenever restaurants reopen for sit-down dining, will people even patronize them?
Titus said some customers may stay away over safety concerns or because they might not have the money to eat out right now.
And others may simply wonder “Why would you want to go out when you have such limitations on the pleasure of dining out?” and prefer to wait, she said.
D'Aurizio added, “Quite frankly, I'm not sure my customers… would be comfortable to come back, sit back and elbow to elbow with people.”
Her guess: “Some of the chain restaurants will open and some of the fast food will open back up, but I think the independents will stay closed for the most part.”
Heather Schatz can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @heatherschatz.