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What's necessary to reopen? Depends on where you are

The requirements or recommendations for resuming dine-in service vary widely from state to state, if they exist at all. Here's a sampling, along with some of the few near-constants.
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Photograph: Shutterstock

In Alaska, which gave restaurants the go-ahead to resume on-premise service on Saturday, only members of the same household can dine together. They can choose one of 20 outdoor tables, the exterior capacity limit set by the state, or eat inside, where seating is capped at 25% of the pre-COVID-19 level. Places are advised to let customers in and out through separate entrance and exit doors. And entrance is only provided to guests with reservations. Would-be walk-ins have to be turned away.

In the 89 of Tennessee’s 95 counties where restaurants are now permitted to seat customers again, establishments are advised to take each patrons’ temperature before allowing them through the doors.

Come May 1, restaurants in Oklahoma can also start providing table service. The only stipulation is that customers be kept 6 feet apart and otherwise follow standard social distancing protocols.

Instead of setting new safety protocols as a prelude to resuming dine-in service, New York is exponentially broadening its COVID-19 testing practices to include employees of restaurants currently offering takeout and delivery. The idea is to find and isolate unsuspecting carriers of the virus so others can safely serve sit-down customers again.

And Michigan used the release of reopening guidelines for some public facilities to add new safety requirements for restaurants, which are still limited to takeout and delivery. Masks and hand-washing break times are now required.

As the industry starts its creep back to normalcy, operators are finding the imposed or recommended reopening practices to be more of a state-by-state patchwork than a standard roster of do’s and don’ts.

A few near-constants are emerging. Many of the half-dozen or so states that have aired their dining room reopening protocols in recent days call for restaurant employees to wear masks. But only some also mandate or recommend gloves.

Many have banned buffets and salad bars, along with self-service condiment arrays and beverage stations where patrons can help themselves to a refill. A large majority also call for keeping bars out of use, and for either using single-use menus or wiping down the reusable sort.

But there, too, the guidelines differ. Restaurants in Tennessee can provide tabletop bottles of ketchup or mustard, provided the containers are sanitized before another party is seated. In most places, only single-serve packets can be provided, and upon request.

Even social distancing standards differ. Guests and tables are expected to be at least 6 feet apart in some states and 10 feet distant in others. Restaurants in Georgia are required to extend social distancing to break rooms by setting capacity limits.

Still, the roster of states setting conditions for businesses to reopen for on-site service continues to grow at a rapid clip. A resumption of dine-in service has already been OK’d in Georgia, Tennessee and Alaska. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to announce at least a partial reopening within his restaurant-rich state later today.

A flurry of other jurisdictions are expected to OK dine-in service at some scale when their stay-at-home directives expire on April 30.

Other states have dashed the hopes and fears that restaurants will be permitted to reopen their dining rooms this week. Michigan, Colorado and New York have all disclosed plans to let certain industries and forms of recreation resume operations but have suggested that restaurants will be part of a later reopening wave.

Others have neither provided reopening protocols for restaurants nor indicated when that information may be provided, if at all. Oklahoma’s guidelines consist at present of a single 17-word sentence that advises restaurants to follow the general safety precautions issue by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Restaurant Association issued guidelines last week to help restaurateurs navigate the process of reopening their dining rooms. “As the saying goes, the devil is in the details, and not every restaurant is the same and not every opening scenario will align,” the Association stated in its guidelines. “We recognize that not everyone has access to guidance.”

The 10-page resource includes best practices on safeguarding employees, sanitizing potential points of contamination and practicing social distancing while welcoming customers. A copy can be found here.

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