What we've learned from COVID-19 so far, and why recent case spikes could change everything yet again.

As implausible as this might sound, we’ve now spent roughly a third of a full year under COVID-19 conditions. Today, pretty much the entire county is in some form of reopening stage—paused, backtracking, or moving forward. And it’s been a bouncy ride.

The NPD Group Monday reported that customer transactions at major U.S. restaurant chains declined 13 percent in the week ending June 21 compared to the same week in 2019. The result is slightly softer than the 12 percent drop the previous week. But of note, it marked the first time since the week ending April 12 restaurants did not witness improvement in the year-over-year trend.

It appears surges of coronavirus cases in a number of states contributed to the slowdown. NPD’s current period also included Father’s Day, which is more of backyard occasion than a restaurant event, like Mother’s Day.

Yet a state-by-state review highlights surge concerns. With cases climbing across multiple markets, some of the states that reported the highest number of new positives experienced steeper declines. Arizona saw a 5-point fall in year-over-year transactions, per NPD’s Crest Performance Alerts. Restaurant transactions in Florida, Nevada, and North Carolina—all of which reported higher COVID-19 cases—declined 2, 4, and 5 points, respectively. Customer transactions in California and Texas were flat compared to the prior week.

READ MORE: Why the restaurant industry might not recover until 2022

“The U.S. restaurant industry’s road to recovery is going to have some bumps along the way,” David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of Eating Patterns in America, said in a statement. “The pandemic isn’t over and as often mentioned is ‘unprecedented’ so there is no road map. The foodservice industry is solidly in the restart phase as restaurants begin to reopen on-premise operations, adopt and implement new procedures and protocols, and keep plans fluid because things could change quickly.”  

The recent setback halted two months of steady improvement. Even so, full-service restaurant chains continue to benefit from an increase in the number of localities and states that now permit on-premise dining. The percentage of restaurant units allowed to reopen dine-in operations increased to 79 percent in the week ending June 21 versus 74 percent in the prior period. The sit-down sector’s transactions declined 24 percent in the week compared to a year ago after dropping 26 percent the previous week, NPD said. Customer transactions at quick-service brands fell 12 percent, year-over-year, after a 11 percent slide in the week ending June 14.

So the overarching theme is a dynamic pulling two ways: Restaurants, especially full-serves, are broadly in better shape because there are simply more markets to welcome sit-down diners in. But case surges are starting to interrupt the path back, and could endanger future progress.

CNBC reported late last week on a JPMorgan Study that analyzed data from 30 million Chase credit and debit cardholders, along with Johns Hopkins University’s case tracker. Analyst Jesse Edgerton found that increased restaurant spending in a state predicted a rise in new infections three weeks later.

Louisiana, West Virginia, and Arizona produced the smallest relative declines in restaurant spending by Chase cardholders compared with the year-ago period. District of Columbia and Massachusetts notched the sharpest drops. Per CNBC, Edgerton said in-person restaurant spending was “particularly predictive.”

The National Restaurant Association added in a statement to the publication that while it empathizes with the country’s concern over case spikes, “It is irresponsible to pin the rise on a single industry.” Edgerton agreed that surge states shared other factors beyond just higher restaurant spending. However, he added, higher spending at supermarkets seemed to correlate with a slower spread of the virus, too. It boiled down to overall social distancing measures.

What we don’t know moving forward, though, is which direction restaurants will arrive at faster. Will additional re-closures infiltrate the marketplace and accelerate NPD’s latest trend? Will states enforce shutdowns again and reignite a mass sales plunge? Or will pent-up demand continue to push business into restaurants well equipped to keep guests safe?

Eater Monday reported that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is reconsidering plans to allow indoor dining next week during its third phase of reopening. He attributed the call to a growing number of cases nationally. Additionally, about 2,500 social distancing complaints were registered during the weekends beginning in June 11 and June 18, according to data analyzed by the New York Post.

“New York City restaurants and bars have been financially devastated and the only thing they can afford less than reopening now, is to reopen, rehire and resupply only to be shut down again shortly thereafter,” Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, said in a statement. “So while we’ll defer to the public health officials for preventing another spike in cases as we’re seeing in other states and cities across the nation, our small businesses urgently need certainty and immediate support on rent, expanded outdoor dining and other responsive policies if they are to have any real chance of survival and recovery.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced on social media Monday they’re delaying the reopening of dining rooms, originally set for this week.

In a consumer study by TruePublic, updated Monday, 32 percent of people said they want to sit outside. Nineteen percent picked inside. Fifty-nine percent were “fine with either.”

To the issue flaring up in NYC, 9 percent of restaurant goers noted they would contact law enforcement if they saw guidelines not being followed. Seventy-three percent said they wouldn’t care.

Additionally, TruePublic’s study illustrated demand. Nearly half of respondents (49 percent) said they were ready to go back to eating at dine-in restaurants this summer. Only 8 percent planned to wait until 2021 to dine-in. In that group, 71 percent expect to eat at their favorite spots the same as before. Eighteen percent think they’ll even dine out more. Eleven percent less.

No matter what comes next, this is a crucial time for operators to figure out how to thrive with new guidelines and limited resources. Customers want to find their way back (if they can).

A few other notes from TruePublic’s study that show how quickly this is moving. Forty-six percent of Americans think restaurants are better off using single-use plates as a safety precaution. Sixty-eight percent believe drinking from a straw is safer and prefer that versus drinking straight from a cup (it’s the little things).

Thirty-seven percent said sanitizing surfaces after each customer is the best way to prove that eating food at that particular restaurant is safe. And close to 80 percent (77 percent) don’t think restaurants should go cashless.

Datassential released a report on the reset of restaurants. Here are three lessons and potential opportunities as the conversation around reopenings evolves daily. The insights stem from research fielded from March through June, from more than 65,000 consumers and industry decision-makers.

Tables Outside A Restaurant

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for a lot of restaurants today. But what happens when the weather turns?

1. The Human Element

The frustrating Catch-22 of COVID-19 is how it pushes back against human nature, yet also reinforces it. Simple actions, like hanging out with friends and family, can now make us ill. However, months of quarantine behavior has put even greater emphasis on social connection and reminded people why they miss some of their typical behaviors, like dining out.

It’s a balance of wanting to stay connected—to peer groups and communities—after months of isolation, while also trying to keep distance. “Restaurants can help ease this tension for diners in several ways,” Datassential said. “This could mean providing a safe, yet fun socially-distanced meal. Or on a more emotional, human level, it could be letting diners know that their patronage ultimately helps others, as restaurants assist their communities, whether through supporting staff, feeding first responders, or generally restarting the local economy.”

Here’s a telling split:

“Which statement do you agree with more?”

  • 44 percent: COVID-19 has driven Americans apart
  • 56 percent: COVID-19 has brought Americans closer

The pandemic has the potential to reimagine why people eat and congregate, not just how they do it.

“Compared to before the pandemic, which of the following do you see yourself doing more of?”

More grateful for things I took for granted

  • June 10: 35 percent
  • April 24: 43 percent
  • Change: –8 percent

More prepared in case this happens again

  • June 10: 31 percent
  • April 24: 32 percent
  • Change: –1 percent

Supporting independent restaurants

  • June 10: 24 percent
  • April 24: 25 percent
  • Change: –1 percent

Supporting grocery store and restaurant workers

  • June 10: 24 percent
  • April 24: 26 percent
  • Change: –2 percent

More empathy for others who are struggling

  • June 10: 23 percent
  • April 24: 25 percent
  • Change: –2 percent

Making more effort to spend time with family

  • June 10: 21 percent
  • April 24: 24 percent
  • Change: –3 percent

Supporting local food resources

  • June 10: 20 percent
  • April 24: 18 percent
  • Change: plus 2 percent

Supporting “made in the USA” food producers

  • June 10: 19 percent
  • April 24: 21 percent
  • Change: –2 percent

Being more considerate with strangers

  • June 10: 16 percent
  • April 24: 18 percent
  • Change: –2 percent

Having more faith in human

  • June 10: 14 percent
  • April 24: 14 percent
  • Change: Flat

Being more charitable

  • June 10: 13 percent
  • April 24: 14 percent
  • Change: –1 percent

Going out to socialize with people

  • June 10: 13 percent
  • April 24: 14 percent
  • Change: –1 percent

As the country leaves “emergency mode” behind and becomes more accustomed to pandemic life, restaurants fit a critical role. Few industries boast the same kind of demand. The 328 million-plus people in America wake up wanting to eat. The potential to be a light in the darkness, Datassential said.

“Which are you most looking forward to regarding the emotional benefit you get from eating at restaurants?

  • Relaxation: 41 percent
  • Joy: 38 percent
  • Satisfaction: 35 percent
  • Indulgence/rewards: 34 percent
  • Warmth/comfort: 24 percent
  • Appreciation/gratitude: 22 percent
  • Peace/contentment: 22 percent
  • Excitement/anticipation: 21 percent
  • Relief: 21 percent
  • Inspiration: 9 percent
  • Curiosity: 7 percent

And restaurants will, as they often due during times of crisis, help patrons feel like themselves again. They can provide an escape from reality.

“How do you feel about the following regarding restaurants in light of the COVID pandemic?”

  • Restaurant food is a treat/escape from worrying about COVID: 62 percent
  • Dining in restaurants has helped me feel normal again, even if it’s just the patio: 56 percent
  • Eating at restaurants makes me feel connected to the community again: 54 percent
  • Dining in restaurants feels more special now: 54 percent
  • I’ve been waiting to celebrate milestones until restaurants open back up: 45 percent

People want to reconnect over food.

“Which aspects of dine-in service are you most excited to get back to once your favorite places fully reopen?”

  • Socializing with friends/family: 39 percent
  • Variety (different from what I normally cook): 30 percent
  • Convenience: 28 percent
  • Food that’s freshly made: 28 percent
  • Food that’s hard to make at home: 26 percent
  • The atmosphere/scenery: 24 percent
  • Service (someone cooks for me/waits on me): 22 percent
  • Food is more flavorful: 20 percent
  • Meeting/socializing with new people: 13 percent
  • Getting dressed up to go out: 12 percent
  • Seeing what foods are new and trendy: 10 percent
  • Being part of a crowd/people watching: 10 percent
  • Staff recommendations/expertise: 6 percent

A couple of interesting measures there: There’s a sizable gap between wanting to socialize with friends and family and wanting to meet new people. It’s another example of how other customers, not the restaurants themselves, remain the biggest roadblock or fear for a lot of people. The low number with “being part of a crowd/people watching” supports that as well. While that was once an attractive selling point for restaurants (especially bars)—providing a place for people to gather and feel part of something—they now would rather just find a safe haven to enjoy “life as it used to be” with the people they know and trust. It’s key for restaurants to create this type of setting. Olive Garden is putting up plastic barriers to get more out of its seating. The goal, essentially, to sequester booths so they feel like their own private dining rooms. From pods to barriers to putting space between groups, this is one of the most critical elements of social distance dining.

Restaurants also have a chance during reopenings to really embed themselves in their communities. As people seek out brands they’ve missed, there will be opportunities to reinforce customer loyalty by showing an active hand in some of today’s biggest issues.

“How would you be most willing to support restaurants and their staff as they recover from COVID-19?”

  • Tipping servers more than before: 43 percent
  • Visiting the restaurant more (to give it more business): 37 percent
  • Rounding up bill to nearest dollar (to donate to a worker fund): 25 percent
  • Giving positive reviews / ratings on sites like Yelp to drive traffic: 25 percent
  • Buying gift cards (so restaurants get revenue now): 24 percent
  • Going to “Restaurant Week” events set up in town: 20 percent
  • Ordering more per meal than normal (to give them more business): 16 percent
  • Bringing more people to the restaurant: 15 percent
  • Contributing to a “virtual tip jar” for affected employees: 15 percent
  • Attending a fundraiser event at the restaurant: 13 percent
  • Adding a meal / drink for staff to your bill: 10 percent
  • Having a restaurant cater a gathering, instead of cooking yourself: 10 percent

People Sitting In Front Of Table Talking And Eating

As more time passes and debates over safety precautions heat up, customers will only grow more wary of other customers.

2. A World of Caution, Not Fear

We all remember the onset days of COVID-19, when people tried to sell hand sanitizer on eBay and toilet paper was horded like it was end of times. Coronavirus was a silent enemy. People didn’t understand it and couldn’t see it. And they panicked.

Over time, Americans adjusted and learned to live with some of the challenges. This realization empowered many to venture back into restaurants since they had a personal playbook.

“Restaurants still need to do their part by providing a safe and sanitary environment, but diners will take care of the rest with the typical precautionary safety steps,” Datassential said. “Extra efforts on the part of restaurants will help differentiate them among all the businesses competing to regain loyal patrons.”

82 percent: I know which precautions to take and how to stay safe from COVID exposure

60 percent: COVID safety precautions have become second nature

Safety concerns have softened as markets reopen. It’s hard to say if this will reverse again, but the upward movement surged quickly.

“Thinking about how COVID has shaped how you feel, do you agree/disagree with the following?”

I don’t trust others to act safely once “non-essential” services can reopen

  • June 10: 65 percent
  • April 24: 72 percent
  • Change: –6 percent

I wish we had one unified national response to coronavirus

  • June 10: 63 percent
  • April 24: 62 percent
  • Change: 1 percent

Reopening is worth the public-health risk; if we don’t, we’ll suffer in worse ways

  • June 10: 56 percent
  • April 24: 38 percent
  • Change: 18 percent

I’m concerned about COVID’S impact on privacy, data protection, and civil liberties

  • June 10: 55 percent
  • April 24: 52 percent
  • Change: 3 percent

I’m concerned about the damage to the environment from COVID

  • June 10: 54 percent
  • April 24: 51 percent
  • Change: 3 percent

People should refrain from using “non-essential” services, even once allowed

  • June 10: 52 percent
  • April 24: 60 percent
  • Change: –8 percent

I worry more about infecting others than I do about getting infected myself

  • June 10: 45 percent
  • April 24: 44 percent
  • Change: 1 percent

I feel guilty using delivery services because it puts others in danger

  • June 10: 36 percent
  • April 24: 39 percent
  • Change: –2 percent

This COVID crisis has been blown out of proportion; it’s no different than the flu

  • June 10: 36 percent
  • April 24: 29 percent
  • Change: 7 percent

I believe I have already had coronavirus

  • June 10: 26 percent
  • April 24: 21 percent
  • Change: 5 percent

The headliner is the change in reopening or facing even worst repercussions. People seem to be getting on board with that notion. It’s going to be a top point of contention during the next few days as states potentially consider locking down again. What kind of damage would that do to restaurants that have enjoyed some of the early dine-in boon already? As difficult as it was for many operators to restart, can they do it twice? How would that affect staffing and employees brought back from furlough? If you place somebody on furlough twice, what’s the chance they’ll return a second time? What happens to inventory?

Much of this will come down to timing and details. Is it a pause and not a step back? Will further mandates come with government aid? As much as we’ve learned and have been through already, there’s still a lot of unknowns on the very near horizon.

A good sign, however: Restaurants, in consumers’ minds, have a leg up on other options when it comes to safe places to go.

Percentage of people who feel safe going there after shelter restrictions are lifted:

Restaurants with outdoor seating: 63 percent

  • Quick service: 61 percent
  • Grocery deli / prepared foods: 60 percent
  • Fast casual: 57 percent
  • Coffee shops / cafes: 54 percent
  • Convenience stores: 54 percent
  • Fine dining restaurants: 53 percent
  • Hotel room service: 52 percent
  • Casual-dining restaurants: 51 percent
  • Food trucks: 45 percent
  • Hotel restaurants: 45 percent
  • Catering / private events: 44 percent
  • Hospital cafeterias: 37 percent
  • Workplace cafeterias: 36 percent
  • Movie theater concessions: 36 percent
  • Eatertainment / recreation venues: 36 percent
  • Bars / sports bars / pubs: 35 percent
  • Hotel free continental breakfast: 35 percent
  • Food courts: 33 percent
  • College & University cafeterias: 33 percent
  • K-12 school cafeterias: 32 percent
  • Movie theater in-seat dining: 32 percent
  • Flying / airplanes: 31 percent
  • Casino restaurants: 31 percent
  • Food halls: 31 percent
  • Airport lounges / restaurants: 30 percent
  • Buffet-style restaurants: 28 percent
  • Concerts: 28 percent
  • Sporting events / stadiums: 27 percent
  • Kids play areas in restaurants: 24 percent
  • Cruises: 24 percent

As noted before, consumers just trust restaurants more than they trust other people.

“When businesses reopen, how much do you trust the following to take necessary precautions to keep you safe?”

Sit-down restaurants

  • Trust completely: 16 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 55 percent
  • Do not trust: 28 percent

Counter-service restaurants

  • Trust completely: 17 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 55 percent
  • Do not trust: 28 percent

Fellow diners in a restaurant

  • Trust completely: 12 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 43 percent
  • Do not trust: 46 percent

Our own dining companions (friends and family)

  • Trust completely: 40 percent
  • Trust somewhat: 47 percent
  • Do not trust: 12 percent

The restaurants that will win the “new normal” are those that can get groups in and out, safely, with as little interaction with other consumers as possible. Make them feel safe, secure, isolated, and treated as though they’re the one people in the restaurant.

Beyond the seating, how do you make guests feel comfortable? A full 76 percent of people in Datassential’s study said “a restaurant’s cleanliness and food safety procedures will always matter more to me now than it did before.”

In fact, “restaurant is clean and sanitary” was the No. 1 consideration when selecting a restaurant at 50 percent. Great taste was second at 43 percent. Value third at 35 percent.

You could argue these numbers will move back to more normal levels after somebody’s first visit—once a guest feels satisfied with the sanitary efforts. Yet you could also say this metric might see renewed interest in the near-term as cases spike and concerns rise. Either way, it’s a non-negotiable operating practice.

What are people worried about?

Touching things other people have touched

  • March 13: 38 percent
  • June 9: 27 percent

Being close to other people

  • March 13: 28 percent
  • June 9: 40 percent (the more divide there is on wearing masks or not wearing masks, the higher this will go for those on the cautionary side)

Staff preparing / handling my food

  • March 13: 15 percent
  • June 9: 10 percent (Again, over time, restaurants are gaining more respect from diners as other patrons are getting the opposite)

Interacting with staff

  • March 13: 7 percent
  • June 9: 6 percent

Served from multi-service containers

  • March 13: 9 percent
  • June 9: 12 percent

Self-serve areas are point of issue.

“Which self-serve areas will you consider safe once shelter-in-place restrictions have lifted?”

Beverage case

  • Safe: 76 percent
  • Not safe: 24 percent

Coffee / tea dispensers

  • Safe: 45 percent
  • Not safe: 55 percent

Bakery case

  • Safe: 44 percent
  • Not safe: 56 percent


  • Safe: 44 percent
  • Not safe: 56 percent

Coffee / tea station

  • Safe: 43 percent
  • Not safe: 57 percent

Roller grill

  • Safe: 42 percent
  • Not safe: 58 percent

Soft-serve ice cream dispense

  • Safe: 40 percent
  • Not safe: 60 percent

Condiment station

  • Safe: 36 percent
  • Not safe: 64 percent

Hot bars

  • Safe: 35 percent
  • Not safe: 65 percent

Soup pots

  • Safe: 34 percent
  • Not safe: 66 percent

Salad bars

  • Safe: 28 percent
  • Not safe: 72 percent

Buffet-style restaurants

  • Safe: 28 percent
  • Not safe: 72 percent

Don’t forget packaging.

“What are the two most crucial packaging elements right now?”

  • Tamper-proof seals on containers or bag: 32 percent
  • Utensils sealed in plastic: 24 percent
  • Containers / bags are easy to sanitize: 21 percent
  • Each element is individually wrapped: 19 percent
  • Bags / coolers that keep food at the right temperature: 14 percent
  • Containers that can be easily reheated: 14 percent
  • Individual condiment containers: 13 percent
  • Recyclable packaging: 11 percent
  • Double bagged containers: 11 percent
  • Canned / bottle beverages: 10 percent
  • Compostable packaging: 7 percent
  • Reusable packaging: 5 percent

Smoothie In A Glass With Fruit

Healthy food will be in high demand on the other side.

3. An Accelerated Future

COVID-19 opened up a “window of opportunity” for a lot of restaurants, Datassential said. Consumers started to actively seek solutions and adopted new ideas and technology—things that typically take much longer to settle.

“In the end, things that seemed like a point-in-time solution ended up giving consumers a taste of innovative and easy solutions, that will now have staying power over the long term,” the company said.

“Compared to PRE-COVID behavior, what consumers plan to do more / less of once shelter restrictions are lifted.”

Go to the drive thru

  • More: 15 percent
  • Less: 14 percent

Call to place an order

  • More: 18 percent
  • Less: 14 percent

Use restaurant site/app to order

  • More: 18 percent
  • Less: 13 percent

Use third-party site/app to order

  • More: 12 percent
  • Less: 12 percent

Order at the counter

  • More: 9 percent
  • Less: 22 percent

Eat inside a restaurant

  • More: 16 percent
  • Less: 29 percent

Contactless has been a lifeline for countless restaurants. One reason being customers gravitated toward it in a hurry.

“During shelter-in-place restrictions, have you tried any contactless payment methods?”

  • 32 percent: Yes, was already using contactless payment
  • 16 percent: yes, recently used contactless payment for the first time
  • 53 percent: No, have no used contactless payment

Some other lasting trends:

  • 42 percent: Have ordered a family meal bundles at least once during COVID
  • 38 percent: Will likely continue ordering family meal bundles after COVID

“How interested are you in ordering these DIY/take and bake options from restaurants during COVID?”

  • Take-and-Bake Comfort Foods: 73 percent
  • Build-Your-Own-Pizza Kit: 68 percent
  • Build-Your-Own Tacos or Burritos Kit: 64 percent
  • Ready-to-Grill Restaurant Steaks: 63 percent
  • Take-and-Bake Desserts: 63 percent
  • Signature Seasonings, Sauces, and Dressings: 62 percent
  • Build-Your-Own-Burger Kit: 61 percent
  • DIY Barbecue Kit: 60 percent
  • Decorate-Your-Own Dessert Kits: 51 percent
  • Cocktail Kits: 48 percent

Restaurants are also moving past the “eat to live,” crisis phase in favor of the traditional “live to eat” of pre-COVID times. In that, Datassential said, “while restaurants may need to reopen with limited menus, it is more important than ever to maintain new product pipelines as customers look to expand their horizons once again.”

Now is the time to lean into that core product everybody craved, yet also keep the menu interesting enough to encourage repeat visits.

“Of those interested in that trend PRIOR to Coronavirus, percentage who think they’ll still be interested after the pandemic.”

  • Simple ingredients: 88 percent
  • Plant-based foods: 86 percent
  • Smoothie bowls / acai bowls: 85 percent
  • Functional foods: 85 percent
  • Avocado toast: 83 percent
  • Plant-based meat: 82 [percent
  • Housemade beverages: 80 percent
  • Kombucha: 78 percent
  • Overnight oats: 75 percent
  • Gluten-free: 73 percent
  • “Instagram-able” foods: 72 percent

There’s opportunity to get on the immunity bandwagon, too.

“Do you agree with the following statements about immunity-boosting elements in your food?”

  • I wish immunity-boosting foods/ingredients were an option at all the places I go out to eat: 51 percent
  • I would only consider ordering immunity-boosting items from places that are known for healthy foods: 51 percent
  • I want immunity-boosting ingredients in everything I eat (burgers, burritos, pastas, pizza, etc.): 48 percent
  • I wish there was an option to add “immunity boosters” to foods or dishes that I order from a restaurant: 47 percent
  • I wish there was an option to add “immunity boosters” to beverages that I order from a restaurant: 45 percent
  • I would only consider ordering immunity-boosting items from places where I’ve seen them before: 44 percent
  • I only want immunity-boosting ingredients in healthy foods or dishes (smoothies, salads, etc.): 43 percent
  • I only want immunity-boosting ingredients in drinks (smoothies, shakes, juice blends, etc.): 41 percent
  • I only want immunity-boosting ingredients in cold foods (smoothies, salads, raw foods, etc.): 36 percent
Consumer Trends, Feature