Work in the restaurant industry is a grind on a good day. Long hours, revolving staff, never-ending customer expectations, seasonality, supply chain issues, and intense competition are just a few of the daily headaches. As adept as restaurants have become at bracing for frequent storms, COVID-19 represents nothing short of their Hurricane Katrina. State and local orders issued in response to the global pandemic forced business closures nationwide—a paralyzing event from which some companies will never recover.

Many resilient restaurants have adapted quickly to new legal constraints by partnering with food delivery services to ramp up take-out and delivery options. Indeed, on-demand food delivery services like Uber Eats, Postmates, Grubhub, and DoorDash are about the only food-related business to benefit from the pandemic. In fact, with stay-at-home lifestyles becoming the potential new normal, financial forecasters are predicting a nearly $45 billion growth in that market between now and the end of 2024. [1] Restaurants that can continue to pivot to off-premise services like take-out and delivery options likely will see quicker returns to profitability.

Yet for sit down restaurants whose business is built on the “pack ‘em in, get ‘em out” model, social distancing is anathema. And, off-premise service options will act only as a temporary Band-Aid on a far bigger wound. As part of an effort to reinvent themselves, those restaurants fortunate enough to reopen in the coming weeks and months must tackle the ultimate problem facing the food industry—regaining customer trust. In many ways, addressing the psychological impact of COVID-19 is just as daunting as the virus itself. The long-term success of restaurants in a post-COVID world will hinge almost exclusively on not only their ability to make customers feel safe in a communal space, but safe enough to take the calculated “risk” to eat out instead of cooking or getting take out.

To turn the tide on customer perception, restaurants will need to stay apprised of and execute on a variety of critical safety measures (both mandated and suggested) by the CDC and state governments. The National Restaurant Association [2]  for example, recently published recommended guidelines for the safe reopening of dine-in services, including: (i) providing additional training on sanitary food handling to employees; (ii) increasing the frequency of cleaning; (iii) sending visibly sick employees home and asking them to self-isolate for a minimum of seven days; (iv) turning away visibly sick customers; (v) limiting table sizes; (vi) updating floor plans to ensure at least six feet of separation between tables; and (vii) when practical, using barriers to physically separate tables.

State and local governments have imposed similar standards. In Georgia, for example, Governor Kemp permitted restaurants to offer dine-in service, so long as they adhere to 39 virus-related requirements. Included among the requirements is contactless payment transactions and a ten-customer limit for every 500 square feet of dining space.[3]

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently allowed restaurants in most of the state’s counties to reopen under new regulations aimed at furthering social distancing.[4]  “Phase 1” of Florida’s plan requires that restaurants limit their occupancy to no more than 25% of their normal seating capacity. Governor DeSantis has also emphasized that restaurants prioritize using outdoor dining areas and consider switching to single-use paper menus.

Similarly, in California, restaurants located in counties that have permitted reopens are required to create workspace-specific plans for dealing with COVID-19, hold employee training, provide temperature and symptom screenings for workers, follow social distancing guidelines, and enact specific cleaning protocols. [5]

These measures are for the betterment of the public welfare and should be implemented as a matter of course. However, the restaurants that effectively message compliance (or better yet, exceeding compliance) with legal safety mandates stand the best chance of recovering their dine-in customer base more rapidly. When taking extra steps and precautions, and formulating reopening plans, transparent and frequent communications with customers is key.

To that end, many restaurants are pushing out email updates to their clientele. Others are taking to posting on social media as their procedures evolve, or advertising revised seating plans and patio service options in local publications. Still, others are taking the opportunity to build connections in their local communities by donating to food banks and school meal programs. Making employees aware of implemented changes is equally important so they can accurately and effectively communicate progress and answer customer questions.

As new standards, regulations, and recommendations for restaurant operations are formulated, the Bilzin Sumberg team will continue to provide updates that can be implemented and shared with clients’ employees and customers.

This information is intended to inform our clients and other friends about legal developments, including recent decisions of various municipalities, legislative, and administrative bodies. Because of the rapidly changing landscape related to COVID-19, we intend to send out regular updates. The information we provide is not intended as legal advice and viewers/readers should not rely on information contained in these materials to make business or legal decisions. Before making any legal decisions, consult your lawyer. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you need assistance responding to the many issues which have arisen, and will continue to arise, out of this situation.

[1] https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/05/11/2031106/0/en/The-Global-Online-On-Demand-Food-Delivery-Services-Market-is-expected-to-grow-by-44-23-billion-during-2020-2024-progressing-at-a-CAGR-of-7-during-the-forecast-period.html. 
[2] The National Restaurant Association is a restaurant industry business association with a stated purpose of serving the restaurant industry by strengthening its operations, mitigating risks, and protecting its vitality. See https://www.restaurant.org/About/Mission.
[3] https://abcnews.go.com/Business/restaurants-mull-reopening-amid-covid-19-pandemic-risk/story?id=70368692.
[4] http://www.sun-sentinel.com/coronavirus/fl-ne-coronavirus-reopening-restaurants-20200510-g5ayvlcwrre73oihrtycry33ci-story.html.
[5] https://www.law360.com/foodbeverage/articles/1273036/calif-details-plan-for-reopening-restaurants-retail.