Expect to see hand-washing stations, masks, and reduced seating.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated August 05, 2020
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Some parts of the U.S. have begun reopening restaurants; others have not. But even people living in areas that are easing restrictions may be reluctant to go out, in part because they don’t know what they’ll find—or what they should find. With different states and communities taking different approaches, expectations aren’t clear.

Will it all be al fresco dining, personal greenhouses, and mannequin seat-fillers? As far as federal guidance is concerned, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the best resource available, and they released a new decision tool for restaurants and bars late last week.

Though we’re not all bar owners, the new tool is helpful from a customer’s perspective, too, as it shares what you can look for to assure that establishments are up to CDC standards. The first major recommendation is that reopening should “be consistent with applicable state and local orders,” which is actually worth considering: If a bar is the only one open in your entire city, that's a red flag.

Digging into specifics, the guidance is broken down into two groups: one for health and safety and one for monitoring. For the first group, keep an eye out for things like hand-washing stations and employees wearing face coverings. Additionally, restaurants and bars should “encourage social distancing and enhance spacing [through] spacing of tables/stools, limiting party sizes and occupancy, avoiding self-serve stations, restricting employee shared spaces, [and] rotating or staggering shifts, if feasible.” If you’re not seeing evidence of intensified cleaning, sanitization, disinfection, and ventilation, that’s a bad sign.

“Monitoring” is harder for customers to observe, but it’s not impossible. For instance, the CDC says bars and restaurant should “develop and implement procedures to check for signs and symptoms of employees daily upon arrival”—so if you see a server run in the front door and immediately get to work, that could raise an eyebrow. And the CDC repeatedly reinforces that sick employees—regardless of the illness—should stay home and that businesses should accommodate sick time though planning, communication, and flexible policies.

Finally, the CDC also tells restaurants and bars to “regularly communicate and monitor developments with local authorities” and to “be ready to consult with the local health authorities if there are cases in the facility or an increase in cases in the local area.” There’s a takeaway for customers here, too: We all want to get back to going out, but if a fresh “spike” occurs in your area, eating out may simply become riskier than it was before. In the end, the coronavirus outbreak has proven that we’re all responsible for each other’s health, but you still have to be responsible for yourself first and foremost.