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Separated by plexiglass? Experts discuss how restaurants will change

Some restaurants have proposed performing customer temperature checks and only seating small parties.
Coronavirus emergency - Restaurant plexiglass separator, Rome, Italy - 23 Apr 2020
Giorgio Viscione, owner of Gigaprint, tests plexiglass separators produced by his company with Italian restaurant owner Valerio Calderonei in Rome, Italy in April. Will restaurants be adopting this setup in the future? Fabio Frustaci / EPA/EFE via Shutterstock
/ Source: TODAY

Many Americans are still under strict stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, amid fervent calls from a growing number of groups to restart the economy, several states have begun the process of reopening businesses.

Restaurants in particular face unique hurdles when it comes to how they may serve customers in the immediate future and beyond. Now diners are wondering what their next meal out might look like.

Will people be forced to wear masks at all times? Will customers have to get their temperatures checked before entering any eatery? Will friends and partners be forced to sit behind plexiglass dividers?

Last week, a set of photos from Rome, Italy, started making the internet rounds. Some were alarmed by the scene: Diners are separated by a giant plexiglass pane, which ideally not only helps block contaminated particles, but would certainly make it more difficult for someone to sneak a fry from a companion's plate.

While these types of dividers would likely be effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, according to Jade Flinn, MSN, restaurant design experts said that American consumers are unlikely to see such drastic measures being taken.

Stephani Robson, PhD, who teaches hotel and restaurant design at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration, said that some of the changes proposed are a "non-starter for restaurants."

"When I saw that picture in Rome, I just laughed. Like, you've got to be kidding me," Robson said. "That's silly. It's just silly."

Robson, who specializes in the psychology of restaurant design, suggested that booths with higher backs might be a compromise for both restaurants and diners.

"People will feel secure, because they've got a separation between them and the other party, and it's a very familiar seating style," she said, before adding, "I think with a few tweaks to what we've been doing for a long time, we can make people psychologically comfortable, get social distancing in, and make sure restaurants are still profitable."

Social Distancing in Hong Kong
A restaurant in Hong Kong uses plastic barriers on the back of booths to enforce social distancing measures. SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Restaurants that are being permitted to open in the U.S. are now being asked to create at least 6 feet of space between parties. However, Mitchell Davis, the chief strategy officer at The James Beard Foundation, said that this distance requirement is unlikely to be sustainable.

"As long as social distancing is required, the amount of space required in waiting areas, in dining rooms, in kitchens and other work areas, makes the volume of business you need to do to operate a successful restaurant almost untenable," he said. "Something will have to give, either price, hours of operation, proportion of take out, what have. In cities where real estate is expensive, many of the guidelines will be impossible to implement."

Photos from restaurants in Georgia, where shelter-in-place orders have been lifted and businesses started reopening Friday, show some tables being marked off with red tape and counter seats barred by objects. Robson said that in addition to being unsustainable from a financial standpoint, this setup is something diners are unlikely to enjoy — especially in the long run.

"When people go to restaurants, there's really a certain kind of experience they're looking for — and that involves having other people there," Robson said. "It's human nature. We like to be where other people are, but at the same time, given the circumstances, people want to feel protected."

In addition to creating physical barriers between diners or parties, some restaurants are taking steps to check for symptoms of COVID-19 before seating consumers. Black Sheep Restaurants, a Hong Kong-based hospitality group that runs several establishments, recently released a comprehensive manual of how restaurants may continue to operate while maintaining hygienic environments.

The manual calls for two main policies for guests: Potential diners should be temperature-checked before being seated and they should also be required to sign a "Health Declaration Form," where they would provide contact information so they can be reached quickly in the event that a confirmed case of coronavirus is linked back to the restaurant.

"There has been a big change in guests’ attitudes to temperature checks and health declaration forms," said Syed Asim Hussain, co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants. "When we first introduced them there were guests who flat out refused to sign and on one evening we had to turn more than 50 people away. But these days, nobody bats an eyelid. It has become part of our new normal here."

Flinn said that if these measures were implemented in the U.S., they would be extremely helpful for contact tracers.

"We've depended on local and state health departments to help us with contact tracing, and I think as a society we need to band together and say, 'We need to watch one another and watch ourselves,'" Flinn said. "Personally, I would want to know if I was exposed to somebody in the community or in the public space."

According to lawyer Stacey Lee, an associate professor at the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University, temperature checks and health declaration forms would be legal in the U.S., meaning that restaurants would be free to implement them immediately upon reopening.

Hussain added that Black Sheep Restaurants have also implemented some smaller changes, including placing hand sanitizer and storage bags for masks on tables. These changes have been well-received by diners, he said.

"Guests have been particularly positive about the mask bags. For them, they have somewhere clean and dry to keep their mask during their meal, and for us it keeps our teams a little safer as having used masks sitting on tables and benches seems pretty unsanitary," he said.

Robson also said that she wouldn't be surprised to see restaurants get "graded," similar to current health department rankings, based on how well they are maintaining coronavirus-related safety protocols.

Davis said that no matter what changes are implemented, it will likely be some time before restaurants return to normal — and some additions, however, may even be permanent.

"As we are seeing in states that are already considering reopening, it’s not possible to issue recommendations a few days before reopening and realistically expect that restaurants can retrofit themselves to comply immediately," he said. "This will take time. So, I think we need to be realistic in any expectation of how long it will be before restaurants return to their rightful place at the center of our social lives. I long for that time, but I’m not sure when we will be there."