A Practical Guide to Social Distancing Requirements for Restaurants

Every business niche has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in some shape or form, but the impact on restaurants has been particularly devastating.

If we follow the pandemic’s progression, the restaurant industry was trending downward even before lockdowns became commonplace. Now, restaurants have either had to shutter completely or provide meals for takeout/delivery to a fraction of their client base. This isn’t even including businesses in major tourist areas that could see a major reduction in potential customers moving forward.

Even in the face of all this adversity, restaurants worldwide are considering what they need to do in order to begin on the road back to reopening. As a restaurant owner, this is exciting, but also rife with uncertainty. Here are some of the major considerations you need to make in order to prepare to reopen in the age of social distancing.

Educating Yourself

The first key component of reopening is research. This includes not just how COVID-19 has impacted your business, but how the fallout may change your industry as things move forward.

However, your immediate concern should be compliance. Depending on where you do business, there may be very different restrictions in place than for another restaurant in a different area. Some of the common things you can expect are maintaining social distancing and how many customers you can have in a location at a given time. Also, you may not be able to seat your restaurant at full capacity for the foreseeable future. Regulations could also change so you want to be prepared.

It’s also a good idea to follow scientific and general news about the fight against COVID-19. This will ensure that you are aware of any new practices to lower transmission risk, and it will also allow you to possibly act preemptively in the event of a resurgence in your area.

Next, you need to evaluate the changes that will impact your business and prepare to address them. This functions in a number of ways for the restaurant industry. First, the supply chain has been rattled to its core and certain ingredients and products are going to be a lot more difficult or expensive to source. Is it feasible for you to find a less expensive alternative? Or will you need to shelve different menu items until situations improve? Also, customer behavior toward restaurants is likely to shift. Be sure that your business is geared to remain profitable if there’s a greater preference for takeout moving forward.

It’s also important to evaluate best practices for your staff. Restaurateurs have a bit of a leg up here compared to other businesses, but it’s key that this goes beyond the kitchen and to your front-of-house staff as well. For example, in America, fighting through illness and going to work is usually considered admirable. Putting this mindset to bed is key to keeping everyone safe.

Equipping Your Business

Best practices and a good plan are key, but there are also more concrete investments your restaurant is going to need to make in order to keep customers and staff safe. Essentially, social distancing equipment serves as a safeguard against human error and helps force things like spacing and safe practices in the event that someone does not want to comply/forgets to comply with your business’s standards.

It is important to note that not all equipment is created equal. Chances are that all businesses and most households have made some sort of PPE (personal protective equipment) investment over the last few months. These fundamentals include masks, gloves, and sanitizer. Yes, your business should have a large stockpile of protective equipment in order to supply every worker with an adequate amount. However, there is also a second tier of equipment that needs to be taken into consideration, specifically, larger-scale, permanent additions. These may be necessary and popular even after a COVID-19 vaccine has been developed.

What are some examples of this? Here are a few:

Glass/plexiglass barriers: Things like sneeze guards are already popular at buffets, but you can expect to see this in just about every restaurant setting where shared surfaces are present. These barriers will keep particles from getting on a surface multiple people will touch.

Infrared thermometers: If you follow the news, you may already see some businesses take the temperature of people before letting them enter their establishment. This isn’t a foolproof way to keep infected people from entering, but it provides some level of screening. With an infrared thermometer, you can take temperatures without close contact.

Occupancy sensors: Many municipalities regulate the number of people that can be in an establishment at one time. These tools help make sure your business complies with the occupancy rules.

Turnstiles/racks/seating: Mandating six feet of distance is something all businesses are going to need to work towards. These three items all help do that during activities like waiting in line. Turnstiles and racks provide a way to force separation with the different groups, while added seating will keep people from naturally gravitating to standing near each other.

However, there’s a major issue here for most restaurants. How can you double down financially and buy new equipment when your business has suffered an unprecedented loss of income? The answer is making sure you are ready to finance your social distancing equipment. You can’t try and push ahead without this equipment, and in some cases, it may be a matter of law. That means you may need to be prepared to borrow to meet these requirements. If you think you will need to go this route, gather the documents and evidence you need to show your business has a proper credit history. Another possibility is leasing, so you can open faster for a lower initial cost.

Restaurant owners are already well attuned to the need for public health in their business, from the products they source to the sanitary measures they go through every day. While changing for the road ahead is going to require you to tweak your business model, the mentality of keeping things safe and providing a quality product will always remain the same. So, while this has been a dark time for the restaurant industry, they may be better prepared than most to navigate the new normal.