Fear Of Eating Out: Anxiety In Restaurant Dining During COVID-19

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As I write this column, the news is changing hourly as some states pause or reverse their reopening of restaurants and bars (see a current count from The New York Times here), and by the time you read it, those numbers may have already shifted in response to increasing COVID-19 caseloads throughout the U.S. Action by government officials on many levels in Arizona, Washington, California, Florida and Texas revoked previously granted access to their areas’ dining and drinking scene, as social distancing measures were contravened or ignored, leading to new surges of the disease.

This situation compounds a real sense of unknown territory as we venture forth into this brave new world of hospitality. Just as unexplored areas of maps in days gone by were labeled “Here Be Dragons”, the COVID-19 monsters of our time are just as frightening: a disease with a fluctuating list of symptoms that vary by day and for which there is currently no vaccine. 

Due to two months of eating comfortably from the boundaries of our own living rooms, the idea of dining in a public space with other people takes on a new significance — one that, for many, has a tinge of a deeper emotion than the simple joy that it once held. 

“Dining out is now an exercise in hypervigilance,” writes Jacob Dean at The Takeout. “Did the person at the table across from us just cough? Is our server wearing gloves? Should they be wearing gloves? Should we? The server is pouring us water instead of leaving the bottle: This means we interact with them more frequently (and they have to do more work!), but we don’t have to worry about handling the bottle ourselves. Is that the best approach? The anxieties are endless.”

Although sanitization protocols were already part of a restaurant’s makeup, and has been stepped up in many cases (especially in customer touch points), there is a shift in perception to these previously unnoticed methods. In addition to the ambience, diners are now paying attention to sanitation efforts and safety measures more than ever before. And this heightened awareness adds to the stress levels of both restaurant employees and diners themselves, even subconsciously.

In an online survey of roughly 2,500 Canadians and Americans over the age of 18, Leger and The Association for Canadian Studies found that if social distancing were reduced to 1 meter, only 40 per cent of respondents said they were comfortable dining in restaurants, and a mere 21 per cent were comfortable going to bars, lounges, night clubs or pubs. In previous articles, I’ve written about how social distancing greatly impacts a restaurant’s bottom line, given that each square foot of dining room space represents potential revenue (The National Restaurant Association estimates that 4 in 10 restaurants closed due to the pandemic, and the industry will sustain $240 billion in loss by the end of 2020 — and that number is in stand alone restaurants, excluding hotels, and concessions). One or two meters between diners and tables, although necessary for safety precautions, changes both the number of guests paying for meals, but also the experience of the restaurant’s ambience — it’s hard, after all, to have the intimate conversation or elbow to elbow conviviality of a small, buzzy restaurant from that distance. 

Restaurant owners are also urging staff to consider these uncertain behaviors from diners and to offer greater flexibility. “Do be patient with people as they adapt to a new environment and a new set of rules for dining out,” urged Florida restaurateur Suzanne Perry of Datz Restaurant Group in an article called “Lessening Employee Anxiety as Restaurant Doors Open” in Modern Restaurant Management.

Nonetheless, the anxiety will be difficult to alleviate, as we replace fear of missing out with other, more deep rooted worries that may prove difficult to overcome in tomorrow’s dining landscape.

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