As America enters the third month of its surreal Covid-19 existence, the conversation for bars and restaurants has slowly turned to reopening. Like so much of life in the coronavirus pandemic, this is a nuanced discussion, with an establishment’s location largely determining if, when, and how it can reopen.

The majority of states currently reopening have hit restaurants with capacity caps ranging from 25 to 50 percent. But in some, such as Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Wyoming, restaurants have been allowed to reopen without those caps, and restrictions are instead placed on the spacing between occupied tables. Meanwhile, in South Carolina and South Dakota, social distancing measures have been recommended but not enforced. As for bars — especially those not offering dine-in services — the overwhelming majority remain shuttered across the country, even while neighboring restaurants are allowed to reopen.

On a national scale, the state of reopening remains a complex issue that’s evolving on a day-to-day basis. Restaurants now welcoming their first in-house diners in months have emerged to a vastly changed operating landscape. To deal with the “new normal” of socially distanced dining, operators have had to get creative and implement innovative solutions.

To find out what those solutions look like, VinePair spoke with restaurant operators in three of the states that have been earliest to reopen. We also contacted industry-adjacent companies providing innovative solutions that assist post-Covid operations. Across the board, solutions range from physical and procedural changes to digital innovations — all of which will surely soon become a reality for diners and operators in the next phase of our Covid lives.

Digital Solutions to Manage Occupancy

With almost all reopening restaurants subject to some form of capacity cap, one of the major challenges will be maximizing occupancy to bring in as much cash as possible. At the same time, operators will need to avoid lengthy queues, which could flout social-distancing guidelines and present significant health risks. To find a balance between the two, digital solutions could prove the best option.

OpenTable is one of the world’s leading reservation platforms, with nearly 60,000 restaurant clients subscribing to the service worldwide — more than 30,000 of which are based in the U.S. Prior to Covid-19, the service helped seat 134 million diners globally per month and over 1.5 billion diners annually.

Like other point-of-sale (POS) systems, such as Toast and Upserve, OpenTable’s main goal is to help restaurants operate at peak capacity during operating hours. But as America’s restaurants begin to reopen, the company has found itself doing the opposite. OpenTable is now working with restaurants to reconfigure their operations so that reservations never exceed the capacity caps placed on them, explains Andrea Johnston, OpenTable’s chief operating officer. That process involves operators calculating how many people can flow into the restaurant per hour, and reconfiguring their “inventory” (i.e., table plans) to comply with spacing restrictions.

Johnston says the company is looking for further ways to innovate and assist related industries. OpenTable recently announced it would start extending its service (previously almost exclusively used by restaurants) to bars and wineries — both of which almost certainly face capacity caps when they are allowed to reopen. The company is also considering options for how restaurants can communicate with diners, via the OpenTable platform, to inform them about the safety measures restaurants are implementing. The company is also exploring contactless payment solutions.

Hatch Early Mood Food, a popular Oklahoma City breakfast destination with two locations, has devised a different method for avoiding overcrowding in its dining rooms. During the weekends, the restaurant’s busiest time, Hatch creates a virtual waitlist to avoid guests forming a line. When diners pull up in their cars, they’re asked to text the restaurant, notifying the staff of their arrival and informing them of their party size. A team member then adds them to the waitlist and sends a text to the diner when their party’s table is ready. Only then can guests enter the restaurant.

“A lot of my staff have really appreciated the fact that we’ve had guests sit in their cars for a little while, because they don’t feel that pressure like they used to,” Summer Kannady, operations manager of Hatch’s Automobile Alley Location, says.

Hatch has also introduced stringent sanitation procedures. All staff members, including back-of-house team members and management, are required to wear masks. Each staff member’s temperature is taken before they start their shift, and if anybody has a fever, they’re immediately sent home. “We haven’t had that issue so far,” Kannady says. There are also numerous hand-sanitizing stations dotted around the restaurant, and tasks like rolling silverware in napkins are carried out with gloves on, which are then discarded as soon as they’re used. At the end of each shift, staff members stay for an additional two hours to sanitize every surface in the restaurant.

According to Kannady, locals have received the new measures well and business is slowly recovering to pre-Covid levels. “Mother’s Day weekend for sure popped off and it kind of felt like we were back to normal, per se,” she says.

Taking Ordering and Menus Online

Digital solutions will not only be crucial in getting diners into establishments, they will also likely become a common part of the dining experience.

On May 1, restaurants in Texas were allowed to open for indoor dining with 25 percent capacity caps. That capacity was then extended to 50 percent on May 22. But Austin comfort-food restaurant TLC has taken an even more cautious approach, and has so far kept its dining room shut and is seating all diners in its outdoor patio.

While TLC is providing single-serve menus, it’s asking guests to place orders online through its website or by calling. “We haven’t had one person that hasn’t been able to do one or the other,” says Geoff Freeman, TLC’s operations manager. When ordering online, guests can enter their table number to let the restaurant know it’s a “dine-in” rather than takeout order. Guests can also settle their checks on the portal, which is supported by POS system Toast, providing an entirely contactless payment solution.

Like Hatch, TLC has also been stringent with staff procedures. Each member is required to answer a health questionnaire before clocking in, and employees must take their temperatures no more than one hour before arrival. Their temperatures are then taken again at the restaurant, and anyone who registers above 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit will be sent home.

Freeman says the restaurant is currently reviewing its plans to allow indoor dining. Once diners are allowed inside, they will be required to wear masks whenever they are not seated at their tables. “The big struggle is the percentage of people that might think that we’re going a little overboard,” Freeman says. “But we’re looking at this as what we can do for the community — for our staff and for our patrons.”

Part of the reason the restaurant hasn’t been quicker to open its indoor seating area is that demand doesn’t appear to be there yet, Freeman explains. Apart from a brief 10-minute period during a recent weekend (when two parties had to wait for a table), the restaurant has not been crowded. Freeman says sales are currently 65 to 70 percent lower than prior to Covid-19.

For Prime Steak Concepts, an upscale chain with three locations in Arizona (two steakhouses and one seafood restaurant) and one steakhouse each in Houston and Chicago, part of the challenge of reopening has come from navigating varying legislation in different states. While the group’s Chicago location remains closed, its Texas restaurant is operating with 25 percent capacity caps. In Arizona, the chain’s three locations are working with reduced occupancy based on their size.

To minimize the visual impact of enforced empty tables, the group has placed large floral centerpieces and additional candles on the tables that won’t be used for seating. “When groups come and sit down, we want to have a very clear visual indication that the tables on either side aren’t going to be seated,” says Oliver Badgio, Prime Steak Concepts’ chief brand officer.

In addition to health and safety measures, such as hand-sanitizing stations and gloves and masks for all staff members, the group has adopted a number of procedural changes. These include a dedicated bartender whose sole task is to garnish drinks with gloves on. That way, the bartender handling bottles, jiggers, and ice doesn’t also come into contact with the ingredients guests may then touch, such as a citrus wedge or cocktail cherry.

Operating hours have also been extended to avoid wait times and maximize sales. “All of the seating inventory we’re able to put out on a nightly basis, we’re either selling out or getting very close to it,” Badgio says.

Prime Steak Concepts has introduced single-serve menus, like TLC, but has also worked with its web developer to create QR code menus. When guests scan the code, the full menu, including cocktail and wine lists, is pulled up on the guest’s smartphones.

For smaller restaurants that don’t have access to an in-house web developer, this is a solution that can be easily replicated for a small fee. NYC-based Beaconstac provides QR codes with an accompanying dashboard platform that allows for customization that’s tailored to the needs of bars and restaurants.

When businesses sign up for the service, they receive a “dynamic” QR code, explains Ravi Pratap, Beaconstac’s CTO and co-founder. They can then link this code to PDF files containing wine lists and dining menus. For locations that have different menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the QR code can be programmed to bring up only the appropriate menu, based on the time it’s accessed. The code can also be used to integrate guest surveys and prompts to sign up for newsletters.

Pratap says that demand from restaurants has “unequivocally” increased since Covid-19. He also describes QR codes as an elegant solution for reducing contact, which carries the added bonus of increasing efficiency and lowering paper waste. Beaconstac’s pricing model works on different levels based on the number of scans a business expects per year. The “Light Plan,” which runs at $150 annually, allows 20,000 scans. Other companies offering similar solutions include Scanova, Bonee, and uQR.me.

Physical Barriers for Social Distancing

Visible hand sanitizing stations and servers wearing masks and gloves will no doubt make guests feel at relative ease in the new dining landscape. But some restaurants may wish to go one step further and install physical barriers between tables.

Large-format graphic printing company Super Color Digital typically works with retail, event, corporate, and trade show clients. But when Covid-19 struck, the company started thinking about new sectors where their solutions may be required. For the restaurant industry, Super Color has developed medical-grade Lexan barriers (a type of polycarbonate plastic), including shields that can be clamped onto tables and free-standing barriers that can be placed between tables.

Super Color also offers a bespoke fitted service, where its nationwide team of installers visits restaurants’ dining rooms to take exact measurements. The company then uses these values to create CAD drawings and prototype barriers, before finally returning to install the solution. It’s an extensive process, and one that comes with a premium price tag — up to $30,000 for a complete restaurant retrofit and installation. Meanwhile, Super Color’s “out of the box” solutions, including the clamp-on and free-standing barriers, retail in the hundreds of dollars price range.

So far, Super Color has helped retrofit more than 1,500 venues, ranging from single restaurants to dining chains. “We have morphed for the need,” says Tim Alexander, Super Color’s VP of sales and marketing.

Other restaurants have devised their own solutions to meet capacity and physical-barrier requirements. Ohio brunch spot Twisted Citrus has installed clear shower curtains between tables to separate diners while they eat. Michelin-starred Virginia restaurant The Inn at Little Washington has placed mannequins at tables throughout its dining room, adding ambiance and filling the empty space resulting from 50 percent capacity caps. Mediamatic Eten, a vegan restaurant in Amsterdam, has installed individual greenhouses that seat two diners apiece in its outdoor dining area.

A Blueprint For Businesses to Follow

When planning to reopen, each of the operators in the three states contacted for this article said they used guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a baseline for guidance. The advice from the federal agency currently amounts to a one-page document helping operators determine whether it’s safe for them to reopen; and four pages within a larger document outlining things like hygiene solutions and tips for implementing social-distancing procedures.

For those seeking more extensive literature on the topic, the Aspen Institute has released a comprehensive 45-page guide titled “Safety First: Serving Food and Protecting People During Covid-19.” The guide was compiled by Corby Kummer, a senior editor at The Atlantic and executive director of the Food and Society program at the Aspen Institute. CDC veteran and infection-control specialist Dr. Sam Dooley provided epidemiological insight, while organizations such as World Central Kitchen, Off Their Plate, The LEE Initiative, and the James Beard Foundation also offered input and financial contributions.

“Our goal is to tell chefs, managers, and restaurant owners how their procedures need to change in the era of Covid-19,” Kummer writes in the guide’s introduction. “These are not just the clean kitchen and safe-food procedures they already know of. These guidelines are first and foremost about keeping workers safe.”