People in cafe with brown tables.
Unsplash/Spencer Davis

The key is to not fall back into the way things were.

Restaurants, Don’t Let Things Go Back to How They Were

COVID cases are rising nationwide, putting a spotlight on complacency.

Restaurants across the country are facing a setback as a growing number of states roll back reopening strategies in light of a spike in COVID cases.

Bruce Reinstein, a partner at Kinetic12 management consulting, says some brands have shown complacency, which is contributing to the problem

“I could see very quickly that some became very lax on safety and sanitation,” says Reinstein, who is based around the Boston area. “And the biggest thing about coming out of COVID is that this whole safety-first mentality that the consumer has—that has to stick. … When you lose sight of that, when you stop wiping the tables down, where you leave the ketchup bottles on the table, where you do things that are blatantly wrong, that’s when you have problems and that’s what has happened.”

More than 2.7 million Americans have tested positive for the virus and more than 128,000 have died. The number of daily COVID cases has reached record highs in recent days, with more than 48,000 being confirmed on Tuesday.

Texas—the second-most populated state in the U.S.—reported a record-high of 8,076 cases on Wednesday, which is a significant jump from the 1,323 cases it reported a month prior.

To mitigate the spread of COVID, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced June 26 that restaurants would move from 75 percent capacity to 50 percent capacity beginning Monday. In addition, bars and other venues that receive more than 51 percent of gross receipts from alcohol had to close by noon on June 26.

Florida is facing an even worse situation. The Sunshine state reported a record 10,109 new cases on Thursday. On June 1, the state reported 667 new cases. 

On June 26, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation suspended the on-premises sale of alcohol at bars throughout the state.

Twelve businesses across Fort Lauderdale were issued citations for not following the order, an issue that Reinstein says could rise as independents that rely on alcohol sales try to survive.

“You have to pivot. Everybody has to pivot,” he says. “Some are doing a better job at it than others, but the ones with the biggest struggle are the independents that rely on socializing and the bar business.”

California reported a record-high 9,740 cases on Wednesday. Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the closure of dining rooms in more than a dozen counties for at least three weeks. On Sunday, California’s Department of Public Health mandated the closure of bars in seven counties and recommended the closure of bars in eight more counties. The counties were on California’s County Monitoring List for more than 14 days without “demonstrating substantial progress.”

New York City, which became the new epicenter of COVID during the pandemic, delayed its transition to indoor dining.

“My concern is that some brands were doing it defensively and defensive moves are dangerous,” Bruce Reinstein says.

Reinstein envisions more restaurants requiring customers to wear masks. He thinks most customers won’t mind it because once they get to the table, they can take it off. Currently, about 40 percent of states require masks in public places when social distancing can’t be maintained.

However, the problem goes back to the bar business where people are socializing and interacting and want to see each other’s faces.

“That’s a tricky one. I think the way to really deal with that is to actually reserve areas within say a bar,” Reinstein says. “And again, if you have a small bar, you’re going to have issues. But if you have a larger bar, you can have small group reservations. Then you can have family, friends, whatever it may be, have a table of six. … I think masks will be required, but you have to have the ability to take them off.”

With the rise in cases, Reinstein says 50 percent capacity will most likely become the standard for an extended period. This means restaurants must continue to figure out ways to create additional revenue streams, like growth in off-premises, family deals, and meals kits. The industry veteran adds that consumers want restaurant quality food and want to find ways to go out to eat, so demand still exists.

The key is to not fall back into the way things were, he explains. Reinstein hopes that operators are completing another check of what they were doing when dining rooms first closed, such as paring down menus, finding new opportunities for revenue and different dayparts, and enhancing safety and sanitation procedures.

The new normal has arrived, and restaurants must maximize space throughout the day.

“My concern is that some brands were doing it defensively and defensive moves are dangerous,” Reinstein says. “Then you have other companies that basically went on the offensive and said well, this is part of the restaurant of the future, so I have to make the temporary moves, but I ultimately have to make these part of my DNA. This is what we’re going to be.”

When crafting messages to consumers, Reinstein says it’s important for restaurants to “tell the story of who you are as an operator.” That story must include not only steps taken to ensure health and safety, but also how a brand is maintaining an environment that is exactly what guests want in terms of experience.

Otherwise, operators risk being dragged into the crowd of restaurants that are not following guidelines and are allowing the rise in COVID cases to happen.

Looking toward the future, Reinstein says, restaurants must assume that things will move slowly. With all the excitement of consumers being able to go out again, brands let their guard down, he notes. But that can’t continue—restaurants must embrace the new normal.

“I just think everyone has to step back again and say, ‘How did this happen; we were making progress,’” Reinstein says. “OK, step back, and now just go at it a little bit different again. It’s going to be fine, but you just have to be sure that you just don’t go back and become complacent again to what got us here in the first place.”