The Lowdown: Social distancing in restaurants

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Social distancing for restaurant re-openings Coronavirus

Related tags Fine dining Casual dining Chefs Front of house Coronavirus

With the Government due to reveal plans for a gradual return to normal later this week, restaurateurs large and small are starting to think about what re-opening for eat-in customers might look like.

Temperature checks at the door, big gaps between tables and mask-wearing waiters?

Quite possibly all of the above. It’s still not clear when restaurants will be allowed to re-open, but it’s looking increasingly likely strict social distancing measures will need to be in place when they do.

How has the industry reacted?

Some are getting the tape measures out and bulk-buying Perspex screens, others have rejected the idea entirely. Corbin & King co-founder Jeremy King says re-opening any of his London restaurants while social distancing measures are in place one of the group’s would be “impossible and implausible”. “I am afraid I certainly have no interest in going to a place where I am sitting in isolation, surrounded by Perspex screens and served by someone in a mask and gloves – where’s the fun in that?” Hawksmoor‘s Will Beckett and Flat Iron’s Jo Fleet are similarly downbeat about reopening with social distancing measures in place, the latter rightly pointing out that for many operators running at a significantly reduced capacity won’t be economically viable. 

Blimey. Is anyone more positive about it?

Yes. Jason Atherton believes he can make his restaurants work with social distancing in place, as can D&D’s chef executive Des Gunewardena, who has been modelling restaurant layouts for a range of distance requirements, as well as sourcing hand sanitiser, PPE and air purifiers. It will be easier to implement social distancing at some restaurants than others. Fast-paced restaurants that require their customers to eat cheek by jowl will find it particularly hard, as will restaurants with a lot of fixed seating. High-end restaurants that already space their diners far apart and don’t typically turn tables will probably find it quite straight forward to comply.

What sort of measures are we looking at?

Brewer and bar operator Brewdog has produced one of the most comprehensive plans for what post lockdown trading might look like, although it's all subject to official guidance from Government. Measures on the table include staff wearing face masks and gloves at all times, single-use menus, contactless ordering via app, easily accessible sanitiser stations for all and surface cleaning every 15 minutes. But it’s still difficult to say what will be required by the Government. More spacing between tables appears likely but the jury is still out on whether staff will be required to wear masks as the UK Government has yet to decide whether it thinks they are of use in tackling the spread of the virus. It's likely operators will need to think carefully about how staff and customers move through the restaurant and avoid bottlenecks, although the one way systems used in supermarkets are unlikely to be a good fit for the sector. More regular cleaning of seating and communal areas will likely be a requirement, too. High profile US chef David Chang recently asked his Asia-based Twitter followers to show him what measures were in place in the venues they frequented and found that staff wearing masks and plastic table dividers were commonplace. Full body sanitisers have been spotted and a McDonald’s in Hong Kong has a thermal monitor customers must stand in front of before ordering.

What about Europe?

Pictures have emerged from Italy - where restaurants are expected to re-open in June - of venues with plexiglass dividers between tables and in front of service areas including bars and open kitchens. Some staff are pictured wearing masks. Proper, detailed guidance can’t come soon enough for UK restaurant operators, especially if the changes required are going to be as onerous as have been seen in other countries. Many of the key measures are likely to severely detract from the restaurant experience, but hopefully customers will miss eating out enough to put up with them (we know we will). Restaurant operators in need of a little levity need look no further than a video posted by the Netherlands-based Bunmi Okolosi (who some might remember from London restaurants including Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Lima and Arabica Bar & Kitchen) which investigates what front of house staff social distancing might look like. 

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