Nearly half of restaurant guests say they plan to wear a mask, even when they no longer have to.

The CDC recommends people continue taking precautions even when fully vaccinated. That includes staying 6 feet apart, avoiding crowds, and, yes, wearing masks. Yet there are some key differences—it just comes down to some of the same issues that have hovered from the outset. It’s what, and who, we don’t know that worries us most.

The CDC said, for instance, fully vaccinated adults can gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people, without wearing a mask. And those vaccinated can gather indoors with unvaccinated people from “one other household” without masks, unless any of those people or anyone they live with, has an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

But it’s difficult to correlate any of this with eating at a restaurant.

All the way back in May 2020, public relations and digital agency Inspire PR Group conducted a nationwide survey across 1,800 consumers. It discovered the biggest stressor for most wasn’t tied to the brands they chose to place trust in; it was with other patrons.

We’ve all seen this play out. You walk into a store or restaurant. Chances are you probably already vetted the brand before showing up. Or maybe you do a quick look-around and see servers with masks, employees cleaning tables, etc. However, the real judgement is happening among consumers. It can get vocal. And, generally, it’s more difficult for the restaurant to enforce. Especially given people need to remove masks to eat. And some markets, like Texas, don’t require them anyway.

In Inspire’s study, although many diners said they would like to see employees wear gloves and face masks, their most preferred health and safety practices focused on mitigating the perceived threat posed by other customers.

As you can see here:

Guests would like restaurants to do the following:

  • At least 6 feet between tables: 68 percent
  • Limit the number of customers in: 59 percent
  • Every employee wears gloves: 55 percent
  • Every employee wears a face mask: 52 percent
  • Bills paid with touchless technology: 39 percent
  • Tape on the waiting area floor: 37 percent
  • Require reservations (limited number): 33 percent
  • Every customer wears a face mask: 27 percent

Guests most prefer restaurants to do the following:

  • Limit the number of customers in: 24 percent
  • At least 6 feet between tables: 21 percent
  • Every employee wears a face mask: 15 percent
  • Every employee wears gloves: 11 percent
  • Bills paid with touchless technology: 7 percent
  • Require reservations (limited number): 7 percent
  • Every customer wears a face mask: 4 percent
  • Tape on the waiting area floor: 3 percent
  • Other: 8 percent

As much as things have changed since last May, it’s likely guests still don’t want to be near one another if they can help it.

Lisa W. Miller & Associates has conducted consumer surveys throughout the pandemic, starting with a dive on April 17 that looked at the top three activities in a post-COVID world.

It inspired what Miller calls “the Journey Back to Joy,” and something restaurant chain Fogo de Chão latched onto a guideline for its hospitality-driven COVID response.

Essentially the point was this:

The top 5 of 17 categories that provide the most “joy” among those that can no longer participate in/are doing less often:

  • Dining out: 81 percent
  • Going to church: 75 percent
  • Working out at the gym: 67 percent
  • Going to the beach or lake: 62 percent
  • Going to the movies: 59 percent
  • It’s the idea businesses that can look forward to the “consumer re-entry” will emerge ahead of the pack on the other side, Miller said.
  • Or you might know it better today as “pent-up demand.”

Miller’s latest research, called “The Unmasking of America?” offered insights from the consumer perspective, in terms of wearing a mask or not, as states continue to reopen and loosen restrictions. The main target—will guests want to wear their masks? Will consumers want businesses to require employees and customers to do so?

On a high level, it appears masks are here to stay for most, at least for a while.

Fifty-nine percent of Americans said they are still mandated to do so. Will that hold when it’s no longer a requirement?

These below numbers suggest people are not quite ready to “unmask” in public. As Miller phrases it, “just like it was a process to mask-up, it will take time to unmask, too.”

Percentage of consumers who say they will “definitely” keep wearing a mask after restrictions are lifted (among those doing this activity)

  • 71 percent: Fly on a plane
  • 62 percent: Go shopping at a retailer, not online
  • 62 percent: Go to the movies
  • 57 percent: Getting your hair done
  • 57 percent: Attend a live concern or music festival
  • 55 percent: Going to a church
  • 47 percent: Dining at a restaurant

As you can see from where restaurant dining lies, it’s a more complex activity since you can’t, naturally, eat with a mask on. But the overall prevalence hints restaurants could probably still require “mask for entry” guidelines even when states move past it. Of course, the sentiment could change. Yet that appears to be the case currently. It might be worth thinking about this through a not-at-the-table view. Mask in the lobby. Masks while walking to the bathroom. And so forth. Those efforts should continue to carry weight with wary guests in the coming months as they eye one another skeptically from table to table.

The chart below shows location and age aren’t necessarily differentiators. Getting a vaccine, however, is.

Miller chart.

Interestingly enough, those who have received the vaccine already are two and a half times more likely to still wear a mask than those who are not planning on getting vaccinated.

Miller chart.

Re-entry is a complex and emotional journey for consumers, Miller said. Businesses need thoughtful plans that focus on the joyful reasons to invite them back while reassuring with safety.

This is something Fogo led with, driving a “What’s Next” strategy into its menu innovation in an effort to inspire guests to come out. The notion of innovating around, not taking away due to COVID. One example being the brand’s famed “Market Table” and “Feijoada Bar,” which for all intents and purposes, is a high-end buffet complete with imported charcuterie, soups, salads, and other seasonal rotations.

Instead of removing the option during COVID, Fogo put stanchions around and created protocols so guests could be served by the plate. Multi-concept operator XRG did something similar with its brunch service. It reconfigured the setup, erected plexiglass, and put attendants behind the barrier at each station to guide diners through the entire process.

Efforts that focus on the “joyful reasons” of dining out, yet also lead with safety.

So what will make consumers feel safe again? Miller’s data showed wearing masks has equal importance to getting vaccinated for a lot of people when it comes to confidence.

Percentage of consumers that said it’s extremely/very important to make them feel safe to return to normal activities.

Cases/clear plan

  • 72 percent: No new COVID-19 cases reported
  • 71 percent: Clear path by authorities to help prevent/mitigate another outbreak
  • 66 percent: Once the U.S. reaches herd immunity


  • 69 percent: Friends and family getting vaccinated
  • 68 percent: Getting the vaccine myself
  • 66 percent: Once a vaccine is more thoroughly tested


  • 67 percent: Businesses continue requiring employees to wear masks
  • 65 percent: Businesses continue requiring you wear a mask when entering

Less important

  • 47 percent: No concern by authorities about ventilator availability
  • 47 percent: Friends and family start going out again

These numbers went up further when Miller includes those that “probably” will wear a mask, yet it wasn’t 100 percent. For business operators, Miller said, this will present challenges with reopening as we see the very vocal outliers from both sides on the news and in our businesses.

“Re-entry is a precarious balance that we’ve seen take wild swings over the past year,” Miller said. “Businesses should take a step back and understand the needs of their local customers regarding mask protocols and procedures. Insights will vary by region and business vertical, yet our data is clear that masks will be around for a while longer for many Americans.”

Consumer Trends, Feature