Last week marked a major milestone in America’s ongoing battle against the coronavirus pandemic: Bars and restaurants have now started reopening in all 50 states and Washington D.C, either for outdoor dining or dine-in with capacity restrictions. Operators have faced multiple challenges to arrive at this point. Reopening has been among the most significant.

To welcome back guests, bars and restaurants have adapted to strict health and safety mandates. Those directives vary by state and, in some instances, are governed on a city or county level. Additionally, government restrictions are continually evolving and some factors are not within operators’ control. Among them, customers’ willingness — or lack thereof — to comply with safety protocols.

In fact, compliance with safety mandates has taken on a heightened importance as many of the states that were quickest to reopen have seen a surge in new virus cases. On Friday, Texas paused its reopening, ordering bars to close and restaurants to reduce capacity.

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VinePair contacted a range of national and multi-city and -state operators to learn how they have adapted to government directives, and to gain insight on how those who will soon reopen dining rooms can safely follow suit. Operators highlighted the extensive measures they’ve implemented and also revealed challenges they’ve faced along the way.

How National Chains Are Tackling Reopening

To execute a streamlined, large-scale reopening, large chains have relied on the guidance of institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Across the board, brands like Applebee’s and Red Lobster have followed that guidance and introduced a stream of new protocols.

These measures include requiring employees wear face masks and in some instances gloves at all times. Employees must also complete wellness assessments upon arrival, including temperature checks. Dining room plans have been adapted to ensure tables adhere to six-foot distancing restrictions. And while the bars and restaurants have always been held to strict sanitation standards, operators have been even more rigorous with tasks like sanitizing and disinfecting surfaces.

Red Lobster owns and operates 679 restaurants in the U.S. Most of those units are either open for dine-in or planning to reopen for dine-in soon, according to a spokesperson for the brand. To get to this point, Red Lobster has relied on a “cross functional task force team.” This team makes sure units are stocked with personal protective equipment, like masks, and the other materials they need to reopen, like single-use menus and signage indicating health and safety policies. The task force also ensures that the heightened health and safety protocols have been implemented at each location.

Applebee’s, which has 1,657 franchise and company-owned locations across the U.S., has turned to technology to assist in its efforts, creating a wait list option on its app to reduce congestion in waiting areas. Guests can also access menus on the app or through the Applebee’s website. Contactless payment is now available in many Applebee’s restaurants through tabletop devices.

The brand also appointed “sanitation specialists” at each unit. “The dedicated sanitation specialist is responsible for a strict regimen of cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting all high-touch surfaces from open to close,” explains Kevin Carroll, Applebee’s chief operations officer. The surfaces they’re responsible for range from railings and doorknobs to the tabletop payment devices. “These enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures are now brand standards and will remain mandatory in each restaurant,” Carroll says.

How Smaller Restaurant Groups Are Adapting

Bartaco’s operation may seem small in comparison to national chains, but with 21 locations in 13 states, the restaurant group has faced many of the same challenges as household names like Applebee’s and Red Lobster. It has also approached them using similar tactics.

“Internally, we set up a reopening committee and a system to monitor and keep an ongoing plan on what would be the best way to make bartaco available to guests and when the right time was to safely reopen,” says Scott Lawton, bartaco’s co-founder.

Communication has been an integral part of the process, Lawton says. He has been in contact with fellow industry professionals to share best practices and keep informed on industry updates. The company used that information and the findings of its reopening committee to maintain updated internal documents on government regulations in each of the markets bartaco operates in. “[W]e made sure all of our employees were up to date and had a clear understanding of what is expected of our brand come reopening,” Lawton says.

The Challenges of Customer Non-Compliance

While CDC and NRA guidelines have provided a template to help bars and restaurants reopen, some say that conflicting governmental mandates, and the rate at which they’re changing, have posed extra challenges.

“We’re making changes daily, hourly, minute by minute,” says Jack Gilmore, chef and owner of Jack Allen’s Kitchen, with four locations, and Salt Traders, with two locations, in Austin, Texas. Gilmore’s six restaurants are all located in or around the city of Austin but fall within two counties: Williamson County and Travis County.

Travis County recently mandated that guests must wear face masks to enter bars and restaurants. But in Williamson County, face masks are currently only a recommendation. Gilmore decided to make face masks mandatory for customers at all six of his locations, and many guests have welcomed the extra precaution. But not everyone is willing to comply.

“We’re getting a lot of kickback from guests,” Gilmore says. “I can handle being called stupid and being told ‘this is a waste of time,’ but those are the people that are going to go around infecting people. And I don’t want them in my restaurant.” (In Dallas County, too, multiple restaurant operators have reported challenges with enforcing face mask policies, even though it’s mandatory in the county.)

Gilmore says the fact that not all establishments are being stringent with precautions has added to the problem. “I’ve seen everything from way too many people in restaurants to three people stacked up trying to get a drink next to each other,” Gilmore says. “Those restaurants are hurting the people that are doing it the right way.”

The Threats of Non-Compliance for Operators

In a bid to curb infractions, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) has introduced bar and restaurant inspections as part of “Operation Safe Open.” On the weekend of June 20, TABC agents visited nearly 600 businesses to ensure they were complying with requirements. In total, 17 locations had their permits suspended after they were found to be in violation of social distancing mandates.

In a press release, TABC’s executive director, Bentley Nettles, said: “The fact that there were fewer than 20 violations found among 600 businesses inspected shows that bar and restaurant owners are taking their responsibilities seriously.” But record spikes in coronavirus cases in the state paint a different picture.

On Thursday, the state’s health department reported 5,996 new cases — the highest in the nation. That same day, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Texas was pausing plans to reopen but said shutting businesses back down was the “last thing we want to do.” Then, on Friday, he announced an unexpected U-turn.

In a document titled Executive Order GA 28, Abbott ruled that, beginning Friday at noon, all businesses that receive more than 51 percent of their gross receipts from alcohol sales (essentially bars) were required to close but may continue delivery and takeout. Restaurants, which were previously allowed to operate at 75 percent indoor capacity, would now be limited to 50 percent capacity starting Monday.

Texas was one of the last states to impose stay-at-home measures and one of the earliest to begin reopening. But it has not been alone in experiencing recent case spikes. Alabama, Missouri, and Utah — all of which began reopening in March — also hit new daily records on Thursday. Florida has also seen a recent surge in new cases. On Friday, the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation followed Texas’s lead and announced on-premises alcohol consumption at bars was suspended, effective immediately.

These trends cannot be definitively linked to bars and restaurants. But for cities and states like Chicago, Pennsylvania, and New York, where indoor dining will resume with capacity caps in the next two weeks, the case spikes serve as a warning: “Safe” reopening will be entirely reliant on compliance from both operators and customers.

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