As restaurants reopen, an unlikely battle over tablecloths and other linens as emerged in Kentucky.

Earlier this week, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear published a six-page document detailing all of his requirements for restaurants in the state that would like to reopen on Friday, and stay open in the weeks ahead. In addition to now-familiar requests regarding social distancing, hand sanitizer stations, and face masks, Beshear has also suggested that restaurants shouldn't allow "persons not living within the same household" to share a table, he's asked that employees should be the only one dispensing drinks at the self-serve soda machine, and he thinks that tablecloths and cloth napkins should all be stripped off and sent to that big laundry basket in the sky.

Close-up shot of green table setting with copy space
Credit: kyoshino/Getty Images

Instead of fabric table linens, it has been recommended that restaurants stick to disposable versions for now—but Beshear said that he would welcome suggestions for the safe use of cloth again. "You can't sit down at a table without touching the table,” he said. “It’s almost impossible. The next person who comes up can get the virus from that.”

But some questioned the fabric-free recommendation, especially the ones whose livelihoods involve selling or cleaning tablecloths and napkins. Universal Linen, which provides table linens to high-end eateries in Louisville, says that the company uses an "industrial-grade cleaning process" to ensure that every item is bacteria-free when a sanitized truck returns them to the restaurant.

"We think public health officials are doing a good job of informing Kentuckians of what’s going on in the state,” Universal Linen CEO Tom Austin told the Courier-Journal. “We just want them to know that table linens and napkins are a safe, hygienic, clean and sanitary solution to protect patrons in restaurants.”

But on Friday morning, the Kentucky Restaurant Association told Food & Wine that cloth napkins were, quite literally, back on the table. "Restaurants are allowed to use tablecloths and linens as long as they are changed and sanitized properly after each customer," the Association's president and CEO Stacy Roof said in an email.

Roof had previously expressed concern about the "waste involved" with disposable options. "I think our restaurants are so desperate to get people in their dining rooms, they will bend over backwards to comply [with the reopening requirements]," she told WDRB.

So far, Kentucky is the only state that recommended the switch to single-use tablecloths and napkins. The Textile Rental Services Association (TRSA), an advocacy organization for companies that "supply, launder, and maintain linens and uniforms" previously told the Courier-Journal that it thought the suggestion was "wasteful and unnecessary."

On Thursday, the TRSA said that it had contacted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the FDA to "discuss the increased safety that responsibly laundered reusable tablecloths and napkins provide." As a result of their conversation, the FDA's Best Practices for Reopening Retail Food Establishments now list tablecloths and linen napkins among the "high touch" items that are allowed, provided that they are appropriately washed, cleaned, sanitized, and changed between customers or parties. (According to the TRSA, the FDA's original checklist "specifically noted" that cloth tablecloths and napkins were not permitted.)

That's great for the TRSA and linen-sanitizing services but man, what a blow to anyone who brings their own crayons to draw on the paper tablecloths.