5 differences in this round of dining room closings

The industry is well into a second wave of indoor-dining shutdowns. Here's how this sweep might be different from what the industry experienced in March and April.
Photograph: Shutterstock

A second national shutdown of restaurant dining rooms emerged last weekend as a very real possibility for an industry still rebounding from the first suspension of dine-in service. Five states—Illinois, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington and Michigan—have already announced a discontinuation of indoor seating, with at least one more scheduled to make the call later this week and others likely to follow unless coronavirus infection rates should drop quickly and precipitously. Meanwhile, indoor dining is being suspended by Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco. 

There are notable differences to this wave of lockdowns.  Here are five that struck us:

Fold those tents?
Outdoor restaurant dining is being suspended along with indoor service in some instances. So far, only Oregon and New Mexico have gone that far. Nothing about those states make patio or tent seating more dangerous there than eating al fresco anywhere else. Rather, the extension of the table service ban to exterior areas reflects the assertions of health officials that the true public health threat is a gathering of any size in any setting. It’s why states stopping short of a full interior shutdown are imposing new restrictions on party sizes—in the case of New York, even at-home gatherings of more than 10 people are now illegal.

If other jurisdictions should follow those states in forbidding outdoor service, the industry will be denied what has been a significant source of relief while indoor capacities were capped, and their return on a not-insignificant investment could be delayed. BJ’s Restaurants said it spent $7,000 per restaurant to outfit 100 units with outdoor tables during the third quarter. Because its largest market is California, the chain generated patio-dining sales of $21 million for the period.

Even if a state doesn’t halt dine-in service, it may well lower its cap on group sizes, and many have done so already.

Expect tougher enforcement
That’s true of all anti-COVID measures aimed at restaurants and public facilities, not just shutdowns. A combination of civil disobedience and pandemic fatigue have fostered more denial of state safety directives, trying the patience of governors and their health advisors. In response, they’re cracking down harder. New York set up a hotline where customers can report a restaurant or bar that uses more than 50% of its indoor seats. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has explained how people can detect a violation by looking at the occupancy signs that fire marshals require, then computing what half of that might be. Violators risk the loss of their liquor license.

Governors elsewhere have similarly threatened to stiffen enforcement and levy harsher penalties. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is struggling with libertarians and the state legislature over how much authority she has to govern by emergency order. In announcing the re-shutdown of dining rooms in her state, the governor urged consumers to report violations to local law and code enforcement figures.

Ohio toughened its mask mandate last week, though restaurants were spared. Retail establishments face an immediate 24-hour shutdown if a customer or employee is found for a second time to be without a mask. Gov. Mike DeWine is expected to announce new restrictions for restaurants on Thursday.

Restaurants are seen as the prime danger
Despite the protests of industry associations, state officials are readily citing restaurants and bars as major catalysts for the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, if not the primary drivers. “Don’t tell me these things don’t work and there’s no transmission within restaurants,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee barked in response to a reporter’s question about why restaurants are being singled out for sweeping service limitations. “They’re frustrated because they’re not the only places where transmission is taking place.”

“Restaurants are the most common site of outbreaks here in our state,” chimed in Kathy Lofy, Washington’s state health officer.

Similar assessments have been offered by officials of Illinois, Massachusetts and New York. The government leaders didn’t disparage the efforts of restaurants to thwart the coronavirus. Indeed, most offered praise for the industry’s actions. But they asserted that the safeguards are just not sufficient to flatten the current upward spike.

Restaurant employees are viewed as the issue
Lofy offered an explanation as to why restaurants are particularly problematic in controlling the coronavirus. Outbreaks connected to a dining establishment “usually involve staff,”she said, and that poses a real challenge in tracing and limiting the spread. To determine what customers might have been exposed, state health officials would have to sort through receipts to see who ate in a place while an employee carrying the virus was on duty. Then each of those potential spreaders would have to be contacted, questioned about whom they may have contaminated, and urged to quarantine.  

Ironically, when Washington initially reopened its dining rooms, it imposed a requirement that restaurants maintain a log of who ate on premise at any given time and how they could be contacted. But that mandate was dropped because of the public’s concerns about privacy and operators’ objections to the paperwork nightmare it posed.

More optimism this time about a quick fix
Although state officials typically set an expiration date to the emergency shutdown orders they issued back in March and April, the reality was that they had no idea how long restaurant lockdowns would last. This time around, they’ve imposed very explicit timeframes for the dining-room reclosures, largely because of what’s been learned about COVID-19: Three weeks, in the instance of Michigan, and a month in the case of Washington. Oregon and New Mexico both set a two-week mark for a reassessment of the dining-room suspensions.

As Michigan Gov. Whitmer explained, a case of COVID-19 usually runs about three weeks from contamination to full-bloom symptoms. The states are essentially looking to avert one cycle of someone being contaminated with coronavirus and then transmitting the pathogen to others, and science is on their side.

Health officials’ expectations are also likely being colored by what’s happening elsewhere in the world.  A number of European nations have significantly lowered their infection rates in just two weeks by shutting restaurants, pubs, cafes and other hospitality outlets.

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