Can restaurants be made safe during the pandemic?

This strikes me as uniformed and wildly irresponsible. It’s clear that in an enclosed space with recirculating air there is no safe distance.

Here’s the latest from NV.

From what I’ve read here, reducing seating by 50% would be the death knell for many. Most?

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Seating 50% would be the death knell for a random selection of customers.

It’s bizarre to me that current policy proposals are missing the recirculated-air issue when it’s been in the news for so long.

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The issue goes far beyond social distancing, temperatures and plastic barriers. Random thoughts, in no particular order…

  • Reduced seating capacity also reduces revenue, which in turn determines the amount of staffing required to run an operation. Can restaurants staff to the levels needed to meet health, safety and santitation requirements and still maintain financial viability?

  • Reducing or reconfiguring the seating arrangements is the easy part. How does a restaurant maintain social distancing mandates and still take orders, deliver food to tables, bus tables or provide the check? Will waiters and waitress have to take orders from 6 feet away? Sure there are tablet/electronic options available, but do are they compatible with exisitng POS systems like Micros or Aloha? And who cleans the tablets and how often? How would you feel having your order served by someone wearing gloves and a mask? Or better yet, how would you feel if the waitperson brings a jack stand to your table, puts the tray with your order on it and asks you to take the plates off the tray?

  • And speaking of those masks and gloves, they’re just as likely to provide a false sense of security as they are protection. Who is going to train the staff in proper usage, but more importantly who is going to monitor and ensure that gloves are being routinely changed? It’s all well and good to wear gloves but they can become just as contaminated as hands if they are not routinely changed. So what’s the standard for changing? After every order? Every table? Every delivery/service of food to a table?

  • If employees must be temperature tested, then so, too, must customers. I read that a resto in Orange County is already doing this.

  • California has a mandatory mask requirement when you leave the house. Just exactly how are you going to eat a meal if you’re required to wear a mask to the restaurant? I know this seems a bit absurd, but if the state has a mandatory mask requirement and employees must wear masks, why would customers be exempt from wearing one when they dine out?

  • Which brings me to the whole sanitation issue. What needs to be cleaned, how often and with what? Are restaurants prepared to wipe down every door handle, every chair, every table every time it’s used? Think about it, is Eau de Lysol/Fabuloso/Bleach really what you want to smell when you walk into a resturant? Thankfully, the quat santitizers aren’t so aromatic but still you have to hope that whoever is mixing up the sanitizer solutions has been trained and doesn’t belong to the “more is better” school of disinfecting. Not every restuarant has or uses the EcoLabs dispensers that pump out the proper amount of product. If food operations (all kinds) have to understaff because of reduced capacity, will they have enough staff to adequately sanitize booths, chairs and table between customers? Provided that a restaurant is full, it’s not unlikely that the wairstaff will have a larger load to carry (i.e. more tables/more customers) and may be more concerned with getting food to their tables than they are about changing gloves and sanitizing tables after being used. Are restuarants going to have an employee dedicated to sanitizing all the surfaces that get routinely touched by customers

  • It’s great for organizations like the CRA, (the other) NRA and the corporate offices of the chain restaurants to put out directives, guidelines and manuals for how to reopen and provide "safe service, BUT…unless these directives, guidelines and manuals are written by someone with recent operations experience, what they want staff to do may not be realistically possible. And if that is the case, the employees from the site manager on down will do what they think they can but they won’t follow what corporate wants then to do. And that is what puts us all at risk.

  • Small mom & pop restuarants may not have the sophistication, expertise or resources to implement safe reopening stratgies. The multi-unit chains most likely have the sophistication, expertise and resources to reopen safely but can they get an adequate level of compliance across their system? Maybe, but probably not.

  • Let’s not forget those “coronavirus-is-a-hoax-you-can’t-infringe-on-my-liberty-give-me-freedom” nut cases who WILL go to restuarants and refuse to wear a mask and do their best to be disruptive and demanding of their “rights” to be served. Just because you’re a manager, doesn’t mean you’ve had the training or developed the skills to deal with hostile or aggressive customers who choose to ignore the rules. How many managers are going to either choose to ignore the problem or back down when confronted. You all may have seen the photos of the guy wearing a KKK hood at a Von’s market in Santee. The management on duty did confront him, he ignored them and they backed down. Even tho’ this happened in a grocery store, there is nothing to prevent the same thing from happening in a restuarant.

I miss dining out. I miss seeing friends and enjoying a meal together. I miss trying the new places that were opening and seeing learning about the chef’s particular perspective about food. I miss going to happy hour. I miss going to old favorites and the dishes that keep me coming back. Even tho’ I miss all this, when I do get to go out again to dine or drink, I don’t want to have to worry about how safe the environment and/or employee are or aren’t. I would prefer that the ambiance not remind me of dining in a hospital operating room with everyone gloved up and masked. So until restaurants can figure out how to comply with all the new regs and requirements and provide a reasonably safe dining experience, I’ll continue to cook at home and I suspect I may be doing so for a good long time yet.


Most of those issues seem moot to me. In an enclosed space with recirculating air and a customer who is shedding virus, the air in the part of the restaurant where that customer is sitting will accumulate the highest levels of virus particles you’re likely to encounter outside of a hospital, care home, or public transportation.

Thank you for such a well articulated and thoughtful post.


The complete post was great and insightful and the last sentence summarizes it correctly - it’s hard not any longer be able to eat out but even when restaurants are open again it won’t be worth the risk for a long time.


HVAC experts and industry publications have been discussing how recirculating air can spread SARS-CoV-2 since mid-February.

No preview for some reason: Guidance for Building Operations During the COVID-19 Pandemic |

The CDC has guidelines against using recirculated air in ride-sharing vehicles, ambulances, and when transporting infected people, but not yet for buildings, buses, or trains that I can find.

New poster, long-time lurker… Does anyone know what minimum % of occupancy restaurants need to sustain in order to keep the in-house dining part of the business profitable? In other words, if you are already paying rent, have a cook to service take-out and a person at the register, what other cost is there beyond bringing back waiters / bussers, etc? I’m totally uneducated on the restaurant industry but fascinated by the economics of it… but i’ve seen proposals in Norcal about allowing restaurants to operate at 25% occupancy and I’m curious to understand if it’s even worthwhile for an owner to do so.

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Most restaurants, the margins are so slim that any reduction in peak capacity would make them unprofitable. See the article I linked to here:

I am well acquainted with the dangers of air conditioning. Many years ago I got sick in the middle of the summer and was finally diagnosed with pneumonia. It took a good 3 weeks to get over it. I was working in a test kitchen office and my illness was traced back to an air conditioner that had not been serviced for many years and was loaded with mold. Needless to say the air conditioner was removed and a new one put it before I came back to work.

Your point is well taken, but for me, it’s just one of many issues that are going to have to be resolved. I think the financial viability of any food service operation these days will depend upon multiple factors of varying complexity and importance.


Here is a partial list of expenses restaurants usually cover, there are more, these are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head:

Salary & wages…and possibly benefits if offered
Cost of food
Cost of beverages including liquor
Disposables…i.e. to-go packaging
Cost of cleaning/chemical supplies
Trash pick-up
Linen or laundry service…even if a resto doesn’t use linen tablecloths or napkins, they still have towels and aprons.
Insurance…including worker’s comp
Repair services for things like coolers, ranges, grills, fryers, steamtables
Hood cleaning service
Replacement of service wear that gets broken or stolen…i.e. dishes, silverware, etc
Sales tax remittance to State of CA
Carbonated beverage tax remittance to State of CA
Business licenses as required by each county
Local, State and Federal business taxes

I’ve seen/read interviews with multiple chefs and the majority of them are saying that 50% occupancy will stretch them financially. Restaurants are notoriously expensive to run and notoriously under capitalized. The minimum wage in CA is $12.00, in San Francisco it’s $15.50+ and $14.25 in Los Angeles. If an employee works over 32 hours/week the employer is required to provide benefits, altho’ there are exceptions to this if there are fewer than a set number (which I’ve forgotten because it’s late) of employees. Payroll expenses have been eating into restaurant profits for at least the last 7-8 years.

The old traditional model used to be for food cost under 30% range and labor (including any benes) in the low to mid 20% range +/-… That model is totally out the window now and has been for a while as payroll costs have escaled.

I was in some aspect of the food business for 40 years, primarily in the non-commercial sector. Let’s just say I’m really glad I retired 2 years ago :grin: I would not want to be dealing with this mess right now.


Here’s my (very) simple back of the envelope model.

Draw a simple graph.

X = revenue per cover x covers. This will be a straight line from bottom left to top right.

Y = fixed cost + variable (incremental cost per cover). This will be astronomical at low cover count, at the left. Sloping down steeply as increased covers spread out the fixed costs.

The # of covers where the two lines intersect is the break even.

Extremely simplified model. Plenty of gray area as to what is fixed vs incremental. Some variables (perishables, labor) will need to be “fixed” at basic levels.

If your number of reduced seats x projected turns does not yield break even covers, time for some hard decisions.

@DiningDiva, whattaya :thinking: think?

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A simple and elegant explanation, I like it :+1:. There is always wiggle room or gray area in decision making. How much may depend upon how savvy the restaurant operator is, their location and how well capitalized they are.

I think that no matter how this pandemic plays out, it will provide operators with a wide open opportunity to do some creative thinking to reimagine, reconfigure and reinvent their restaurants. It’s pretty clear that the same ol’, same ol’ isn’t going to work any more. Time for something new. I also think there are a fair number of restaurant owners out there right now in your “hard decision” category.

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Much of metro Atlanta’s restaurant industry knew immediately that reopening would take time and that there wouldn’t be a rush back in the name of expediency. Hugh Acheson, a well-known Atlanta restaurateur, tweeted on April 21 that “No one tells me when to open.” Using the hashtag #GAHospitality, 50 restaurant owners representing 120 restaurants took out a full-page ad in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution giving their reasons for remaining closed for dine-in service despite being allowed to reopen. As we head into mid-May there have been no major updates on when Atlanta’s dining scene will reopen.

Which confirms this story from a few weeks ago:

Sure, there are lots of issues, but social distancing, seating only a portion of seats, servers washing hands even more than usual and wearing masks, and putting up barriers are just theater if recirculating air is spreading virus particles among customers, who obviously can’t wear masks while eating and drinking. And using disposables? That’s anti-scientific nonsense.

It’s also possible that eating outside presents little risk, and perhaps also that so long as there’s good ventilation with fresh air it’s equally safe to eat inside. Not that I’d bet my life on it without more research, but so far the patterns found through contact tracing suggest that virtually all infections have been through indoor air.

Duct cleaning and maintenance will put most of them out of business. It is not inexpensive.

Duct cleaning is unnecessary since the virus particles don’t stay viable very long. The Hunan bus study makes it clear that in recirculating air they can stay viable at least half an hour, but not much longer (since the last passenger to get infected got on half an hour after the one who was shedding particles got off).

How expensive it would be to eliminate the accumulation of virus particles in recirculated air will depend on the design of the HVAC system. Best case, there’s an option to choose between recirculated and fresh air. Worst case, there’s no exterior intake so it would require remodeling.

I’ve made some people seriously furious with me. It’s a cruise board and I’ve had the audacity to post info like the above. These people are willing to die, I suppose, to get back on a cruise ship. And here we are wondering if/when/how we’ll go to a freaking restaurant. Amazing.

In the Chang article that you posted here on May 7, people at table B were clearly infected by droplets from A1 being blown by the a/c fan over table A and then over table B. The people at table C may have been infected by droplets that managed to remain airborne on the return path to the a/c unit, or they may have been infected because the return airflow picked up new droplets from A1.

Air that is recirculated in airplanes passes through HEPA filters (I believe two stages) and is quite safe.

But: You don’t want to be downstream of a horizontal air current that is blowing air past an infected person who has coughed, sneezed, or talked loudly. Anywhere. Fans are just as bad as a/c units. Maybe worse. Note that no-one at tables D or E were infected, because there were no air currents from table A to those two tables (or anywhere else on that floor of the restaurant).

TY for having posted the referenced report by Lu, et. all here: Covid-19, and how to support the restaurant industry? - #191 by robert. In the report, one important finding was that there was no virus on the a/c unit. Virus-bearing droplets may have recirculated within the restaurant space, but neither they nor individual virus particles or clusters originated from the a/c unit itself. This is different in an important way from DD’s unfortunate experience with a mold-laden a/c in a test kitchen.

Also, there is a minimum number of virus particles necessary to infect. With bacteria, this is called the minimum number of “colony-forming units” (CFUs). One bacterial spore very rarely or never does it, although in principle it could, because a single spore by its lonely self is in fact a potential CFU. Similarly, while theoretically possible, it’s extremely unlikely to be infected by having inhaled fewer than some (unknown to me) minimum number of virus particles, alone, in solid clusters, or carried in droplets. Droplet/particulate density reduction through careful HVAC engineering, including filtering, are controls to limit CFU intake in an enclosed space.

As an aside with a suggestion, I used to do a great deal of business travel. If someone behind me or next to me on the airplane coughed or sneezed, even if there wasn’t anything “going around”, I would immediately hold my breath for as long as possible. That’s an easy defense to adopt, since coughing and sneezing are the primary mechanisms of covid transmission.

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