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In polls, Americans appear reticent about restaurants’ reopening

Multiple polls say a sizable majority of the U.S. is opposed to the return of dine-in restaurants even as states start easing restrictions.

A growing number of states are slowly allowing restaurants to reopen for dine-in consumption, providing some of the first steps toward the end of a lockdown that has lasted for nearly two months and cost millions of jobs.

But Americans might not be ready for such a move, at least according to several recent polls.

According to the Washington Post/University of Maryland poll Monday, only 26% of Americans support the reopening of dine-in restaurants—ahead of only nail salons, gyms and movie theaters.

Other polls have found similar results: Just 18% of U.S. adults said they feel comfortable eating at restaurants, according to a Morning Consult poll Monday.

A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll last week said 19% of Americans were comfortable with reopening dine-in restaurants.

The polls contrast with protests in states across the country demanding governors reopen their economies, which are struggling under a series of restrictions that began in March and are aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

The poll results also stand as a warning to restaurants that dine-in business might not necessarily flourish, at least in the short term.

That’s if they’re open in the first place. Many restaurants in Texas, for instance, have been unwilling to reopen even as that state has eased dine-in requirements. Reports on the popularity of restaurants after that state’s reopening were mixed, with some eateries busy, while others were empty.

Anecdotally, restaurants with patios appear to be doing better early on, because consumers feel more comfortable dining outside. Small restaurants that have relatively few seats have a tougher time meeting the seating requirements.

In general, support for reopening the economy is somewhat split along partisan lines, according to each of the polls. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say they would eat at a restaurant, go to a shopping mall or take a vacation.

Yet a majority of Republicans were still not comfortable with any of those activities. In the Morning Consult poll, for instance, 27% of Republicans said they were comfortable eating at a restaurant, compared with 10% of Democrats.

The poll results suggest a potentially slow return to normal for restaurants even as the economy reopens, with a continued emphasis on the types of restaurant visits that consumers consider safer.

For those restaurants that do reopen their dining rooms, the polls show the need for operators to demonstrate to consumers that they are safe.

“It’s got to be visible,” Brandon Solano, CEO of Pizza Inn owner Rave Restaurant Group, said in an interview last week when asked about that company’s strategy for reopening. “We have to make sure we’re not only doing the right thing to keep people safe, but we have to make sure customers see the changes.”

At Chili’s Grill & Bar restaurants in Georgia and Texas, each location has hand sanitizer out in front and a table with sanitizer and paper towels. Menus will either be cleanable or disposable. Servers wear masks and gloves, and nobody will be seated next to another table with customers.

Executives at the casual-dining chain’s parent company Brinker International suggested customers were receptive to the changes. “Everything we’ve heard in Georgia over the past couple of days has confirmed that guests that are coming in are feeling good about it,” Wyman Roberts, Brinker CEO, said last week, according to a transcript of a company earnings call on financial services site Sentieo.

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