When the March closure of non-essential businesses occurred, I was splitting my time between Austin, Texas and Baltimore, Maryland, and I happened to be in Maryland. Great friends of mine (Charles and Susan) owned a restaurant in Baltimore and closed it, even though restaurants were allowed to provide food through carryout and delivery. When I asked Charles why he was not providing carryout, he said that he needed to understand how his restaurant could provide carryout and keep his employees and customers safe.
A few days later, their restaurant reopened for carryout, but only for dinner, four days a week. There was a small staff that they brought back to handle the food orders, preparation, and pickup as the other employees had been terminated and were eligible for unemployment benefits.
During the several months that the restaurant was closed for on-premises dining, Charles worked with a small group of employees to thoroughly clean the restaurant and remove some tables to prepare for on-premise dining at a 50 percent capacity level. With some of the proceeds from the government Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan that they received, they updated their HVAC system and installed a high-grade UV and filter system similar to hospitals. All was done in the interest of safety — safety for their customers and safety for their team of employees.
One of the features of my friends’ restaurant is a signature deck and patio that overlooks a beautiful lake. When Maryland restaurants were allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity in June, my friends chose to emphasize their outdoor tables for service.
While the indoor tables were available, most diners chose to sit outdoors. With access to the outdoor deck and patio limited to entering through the restaurant, the proprietors also required that arriving diners wear masks and have their temperature checked by the receptionist, the same requirements for all restaurant employees.
Throughout the summer and September, attendance at their restaurant has been great, given the situation. I am not sure how other restaurants have fared in Maryland. However, as the temperature cools, I am concerned that people will not be as willing to dine inside during cold and flu season, regardless of how “safe” the distancing between tables or how efficient the high-quality HVAC and filtration system is. I am certain that my friends are concerned as well.
I have spent most of my time since June in Austin, Texas. Like Maryland, the restaurants in Austin closed and were slowly allowed to reopen at lower capacities. Like Maryland, there are some restaurants that have not reopened.
In August, arguably the hottest month in Austin, I opted to dine inside at some restaurants because of the heat outside. Recently, I have opted to dine outside and am not comfortable about dining inside anymore, given the increase in COVID-19 infections in Texas.
If the rates of infection continue to increase in Texas as the temperatures outside cool, I plan to opt for delivery of food at home. Based on my discussions with friends, I am the exception with my many excursions to restaurants, usually dining out at least five times a week.
Restaurants are an important part of our economy, employing many service workers and providing a service valued by many. Any slip in safety protocols, perceived or otherwise, could lead to a voluntary or involuntary closure. I read estimates that between 30-40 percent of Maryland restaurants that closed never reopened.
I am sure the percentages are similar in Austin. The industry did not receive a special bailout from Congress, even though one was proposed by their industry association.
Until this pandemic is eradicated, I believe the on-premises restaurants will struggle to survive. I will keep my fingers crossed for my friends, Charles and Susan, and all other restaurateurs. I hope for a warmer winter and reduced infections everywhere.