President Trump announced his "Opening Up America Again" guidelines on Thursday.

By Mike Pomranz
April 17, 2020
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After weeks of shutdowns caused by COVID-19, public officials are already opening up the obvious next discussion: How do we safely ease ourselves into some kind of normalcy? The World Health Organization issued its updated strategy on Tuesday. And that same day, California Gov. Gavin Newsom spoke for a handful of western states outlining their vision of eased coronavirus restrictions. Then, yesterday, the federal government chimed in with the White House officially announcing its “Opening Up America Again” guidelines.

Diner restaurant closed sign for Covid 19 crisis Corona Virus Covid19 C19 is over
Credit: eric1513/Getty Images

While you may be chomping at the bit to eat out at your favorite restaurant or grab a drink with friends, the guidelines lay out significant “gating criteria” which governors are recommended to follow at either at the state level or county-by-county before even starting Phase One. Those criteria include a 14-day downward trajectory of illness, treatment for all patients without crisis care, and robust testing for healthcare workers. (It’s worth noting that governors do not need to follow the federal guidelines; however, President Trump reportedly consulted with governors when his team put together this plan.)

Once the criteria is met, Phase One would give you the chance to eat out—though “chance” is an important qualifier. The White House says that, during this initial reopening, individuals “should maximize physical distance from others” and avoid groups of more than ten people “unless precautionary measures are observed.” Specifically, for dine-in restaurants, these establishments should “operate under strict physical distancing protocols.” Meanwhile, the policy also singles out bars, writing they “should remain closed.”

But keep in mind, even though the White House recommendations will allow for eating out, plenty of caveats exist as to why some people may not want to. First, during this phase, “all vulnerable individuals” are told that they should continue to shelter in place, and those who live with them are warned “they could carry the virus back home,” meaning eating out could put people you live with at risk. Furthermore, the federal government still advises everyone should “minimize non-essential travel,” leaving diners to decide where they’re headed and how essential any, say, trips into the city might be.

But once areas “satisfy the gating criteria a second time” (another 14-day period), the recommendations loosen up significantly more. Physical distancing should still be practiced when possible, but group sizes are raised to no more than 50 people, and non-essential travel is allowed again. At that point, large venues like restaurants “can operate under moderate physical distancing protocols,” and “bars may operate with diminished standing-room occupancy, where applicable and appropriate.”

Finally, after successfully fulfilling the gating criteria three consecutive times—so absolutely no earlier than 28 days from now—restaurants can finally “operate under limited physical distancing protocols,” and bars “may operate with increased standing room occupancy, where applicable.” (At this stage, low-risk individuals are only asked to “consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.”)

The announcement of this plan may offer some hope, but it’s also important to remember that these phases won’t necessarily follow a linear path. Trump said that, at this point, only about 29 states are close to meeting the established gating criteria even a first time. And any set back should restart the 14-day clock (if not the entire cycle).

However, one thing the president was adamant about in his press conference was that any “new normal” restaurants face will be temporary. “There’s not going to be a new normal where somebody has been having, for 25 years, 158 seats in a restaurant, and now he’s got 30, or he’s got 60, because that wouldn’t work,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “That’s not normal. No, normal will be if he has the 158 or 168 seats, and that’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen relatively quickly we hope. But that’s our normal.”