Outdoors and Out of the Box: Restaurants Moving Service Outside
At the beginning of May 2020, restaurants in certain states were allowed to partially reopen for dine-in services. Many offered delivery and takeout throughout countrywide shelter-in-place orders, if they didn’t temporarily (or permanently) shutter their doors entirely. Now, restaurants all over the country are facing unprecedented and unexpected challenges as they realize that opening to partial capacity doesn’t bring in as much revenue as they might have hoped. They still have to staff their restaurant as though they’re operating at full capacity despite not seating as many customers as before. Concurrently many residents still don’t feel comfortable occupying enclosed spaces or public areas in general.
To remedy the concerns of the general public and reconcile restaurants’ need to serve more people in order to generate the revenue necessary to stay open, some states have invented a creative solution: Expanding outdoor seating areas to include spaces like parking lots, sidewalks and unused streets. Lawmakers hope that this gives restaurants a wider area to operate so that they can space tables six feet apart as recommended by social distancing guidelines and still serve more guests than before. This also ensures customers don’t have to gather in the smaller, enclosed space inside the restaurant itself, giving them peace of mind especially since there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding this virus and how easily it spreads, even with state and federal health and safety missives.
By serving and operating outside the restaurant itself, they can theoretically begin seating the same volume of people as they did before the pandemicas long as consumers are willing to risk dining out. Under these new rules, restaurateurs would be allowed to seat guests in areas surrounding their business. These statutes are an addition to, not a replacement of, previous mandates; merchants still have to comply with their county, city and state regulations, for example they’ll have to maintain food safety in accordance with their local health department and retail food codes.
In Tampa, FL they’ve already established a pilot program that lets restaurants do business on certain streets, sidewalks and even in parking lots. The new seating arrangements ensure compliance with the partial reopening mandates, which cap indoor capacity at 25% or 50% depending on the state, by simply moving the rest of their business into open air. Similar programs are being set in motion in Cincinnati, Atlanta and other cities which some restaurants have already deemed “a lifesaver.” In Connecticut, the governor even issued an executive order allowing restaurants to get a permit to operate outdoor dining in public areas that were previously unavailable for use, significantly speeding up the process so that they can get back to work as soon as possible.
Many states are also changing the laws surrounding alcohol sales. Local governments have already altered some of these strict regulations throughout the pandemic in a bid to garner more revenue for restaurants. Already, a handful of states legalized alcohol delivery with the specifics differing in each jurisdiction. However now some places are even expanding these freedoms to allow restaurants to serve alcohol in these outdoor, sit-down areas. For example, with the right permits you can serve cocktails along with food on sidewalks, in parking lots and even on city streets provided you file the right licenses and submit other information such as a diagram of where you intend to serve outdoors and agreement from local law enforcement.
In California, the Alcoholic Beverage Control (also known as ABC) handles licensing and regulation for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol to guests. They’re rolling out a temporary plan for COVID-19 that could lead to outdoor bars and dining areas long after the pandemic is through, in spaces that are already occupied by food trucks and pop up restaurants equipped for hosting customers outside. Though traditionally liquor licenses restrict the purchase and consumption of alcohol to inside the premises, these new rules would allow customers to eat and drink in these newly licensed outdoor areas. With California’s Temporary Catering Authorization, restaurants and bars can create these outdoor perimeters provided that their county has already lifted temporary shelter-in-place mandates and allowed restaurants to host dine-in services at reduced capacity/ Similarly restaurants still need their ABC license; the TCA is an additional permit, not a substitution. People also need to be able to purchase actual meals within these outdoor seating areas to qualify.
Serving food and alcohol will definitely boost restaurants’ bottom line if they can simultaneously seat 25-50% inside and space the rest of their customers at outdoor tables. Of course this only works if consumers are comfortable dining out with you, but many still have safety concerns about breaking quarantine despite officials reopening certain nonessential businesses. We still haven’t seen a significant downturn in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Additionally many businesses are worried that this will cause people to congregate close together, thinking it’s safe because they’re not inside. Restaurants need to invent new guidelines to organize customers, such as notifying guests when and where they can sit or designing a socially distanced waiting area so nobody queues in close proximity to other people. There needs to be strict guidelines established against loitering too. The more guidelines in place to ensure continued social distance, the safer these reopening strategies will be.
Regardless, there’s no guarantee that customers will feel safe at these outdoor seating areas. New ventures are inherently risky, especially in the food service industry where independent restaurants operate on very thin profit margins, even when they aren’t going through a global pandemic. Despite the risks, however, these new available permits and licenses give restaurants an avenue to make up for losing 50-75% of their dine-in customers inside the restaurant itself. People do seem eager to dine out in a “safer” environment, however, only time will tell if this new type of restaurant will get restaurants back up on their feet as expected. We’ll also see whether this trend will continue after the COVID-19 pandemic ends or if it’s heralding a new age, one that completely changes how and where the food service industry serves their loyal customers.