Tuesday, August 16, 2022 Aug 16, 2022
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How Long Will Restaurant Dining Rooms Remain Open?

The largest urban counties are begging the governor for permission to close dining rooms. Is it inevitable?
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iStock / Suwaree Tangbovornpichet

Restaurants haven’t had much time to consider what safe dining in the near future realistically looks like. But that might not matter. With the spread of rising coronavirus cases in Texas—Dallas County has now added more than 1,000 new cases each day for the past eight—enclosed spaces that encourage people to linger are among the riskiest places to be. Dining rooms are once again in the sights of public health officials, who have urged residents to get food to-go rather than eating inside since the pandemic began in March.

On July 5, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins sent Gov. Greg Abbott another letter requesting the closure of dining rooms and other enclosed public places: “We once again strongly urge the closing of bowling alleys, arcades, amusement parks, venues for concerts, sporting arenas, weddings or other large events, inside restaurant dining…” and the list goes on.

“Well, we had specifically recommended sort of a pullback for 30 days to let things cool off, to really slow the spread, to look at the numbers, certainly try to stop the significant increase in numbers that we’re seeing on all of our indicators,” says Dr. Philip Huang, the head of Dallas County Health and Human Services. “It’s not that you have to shut down,” he says, but limit service to delivery, takeout, curbside pickup, and outdoor dining if a distance of six feet can be maintained. “But not indoor dining. That’s where we do we have concerns at this point.”

José on Lovers Lane reopened to in-room dining back in May. One day they were takeout-only, the next day “we’re open, welcoming all these people in no mask required, so it was a little scary at first,” says executive chef Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman. “It’s definitely changed since the governor has implemented the mandatory mask wearing. Prior to that, it was a little difficult,” she says.

Eric Wilkerson, who co-owns Tacodeli with Roberto Espinosa, has to contend with operating his fast-casual restaurants in four different cities—Austin, Dallas, Houston, and Plano.

“I think the communities are figuring this out together—leading first and government leads from behind, which is really frustrating, but that’s just where we are. I’m glad that the governor has belatedly stepped in to provide some guidance with regard to masks because if someone comes into our restaurant, they don’t want to wear a mask, I get fined. Why do I have to ask my staff to be the COVID mask police? Fortunately that’s subsided dramatically because of the state and local requirements. And it diffused a political argument, which is just asinine that we’re arguing over masks. I prefer to adhere to science and not politics.”

José screens for symptoms and checks employee temperature before anyone can walk through the door. Places like TJ’s Seafood and Nick Badovinus’ FlavorHook restaurants (Neighborhood Services, Town Hearth) are using SafeWork for on-site employee testing. But testing alone is not enough. The setting matters.

“I think there is sometimes this thinking, just test everyone, but someone could test negative and then a couple of days later, become infected, but they’ve got that negative test and then they think they’re fine,” says Huang. Testing is certainly proactive, but “it can sometimes give a false sense of security too.”

While restaurant indoor capacity was knocked down to 50 percent from 75 percent last month, Huang notes that occupancy percentage isn’t easy to monitor. Plus more studies are showing that any long period of time spent indoors without a mask on, such as dining at restaurant, will increase the risk of transmission.

We reported early on, when restaurants were first reopening at 25 percent capacity, that dining at this limited capacity doesn’t help already razor-thin margins. Quiñones-Pittman says it’s hard to say how much of a difference in revenue dining in has made. “I think we’ll have better a better grasp of what those numbers are in the next few weeks. But our takeout program really, really, really took off and we went from having maybe 10 orders to-go per week to a thousand,” she says.

If dining rooms do close, their takeout operation will continue to be a sort of saving grace. Wilkerson, too, commends how swiftly restaurants that didn’t previously offer takeout pickup were able to change gears. “All of a sudden there were numbered parking spaces up in parking lots and a sign that said, ‘Text for curbside delivery,’ and stuff. And that just kind of happened overnight. It happened really organically.”

Wilkerson says Tacodeli can weather an interior closure because tacos already travel well and make sense with takeout. “It’s a big exercise in contingency planning and a bunch of if-then scenarios,” he says. If dining rooms have to close, they’ll put more tables outside.

Looking ahead, we’ll need to keep that same energy. Huang notes how successful the county was in curbing the spread early on, when the county judge had the authority to close dining rooms and bars and salons, before the governor stepped in and allowed all of them to open. And he did so before Texas’ urban counties saw a two week decline in new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths; those are the barometers that public health officials say must be sustained before more of the economy can reopen. And now, we’re in a full-blown outbreak and Abbott is slowly back tracking.

“Dallas was the first county in Texas to implement a shelter-in-place order. Everyone made sacrifices. I firmly believe there are people alive today who would not be alive had we not done those actions,” Huang says. “We showed that it worked. We said that we need to monitor these indicators. We need to see 14 days of decline—everyone said we needed to see 14 days of decline in these indicators before opening up. Things were opened up before we saw those decline…and we’re seeing the results of that now.”

The future of dining could mean more innovation in food, more outdoor pop-ups, more meal kits and farmer’s boxes and other creative ways to provide hospitality and stay afloat. After all, the responsibility of the restaurant has always been to provide an experience—entertainment, gustatory, ambiance, a mood—while adhering to widely practiced safety and health codes. What will that look like considering how this respiratory virus spreads? It probably won’t look like a dining room.

Today’s definition of hospitality—that sense of care you provide someone—means wearing a mask and giving each other at least six feet of space. It also looks like takeout and generous tipping. It looks like making sacrifices to keep people safe.

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