Guide: How to Reopen A Restaurant Safely

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2020 has been a truly unpredictable year, and for the restaurant industry, the past few months have offered more than their fair share of hurdles.  Though the rules for restaurants seem to be loosening in some states, the situation with COVID-19 could turn worse overnight. Throughout July, much of the country began plans to reopen, but by August, those plans quickly started reversing. In the first week of August, 46 states had some form of restaurant dining open, with 24 states either reversing or pausing reopening plans. To reopen a restaurant and navigate this tricky landscape, restaurant owners have not only the safety of their staff to keep in mind, but also customer safety and overall public health concerns. 

Additionally, restaurants usually operate on slim margins. Tracy Hadden Loh and Annelies Goger from said, “Revenues [for restaurants] are highly sensitive to changes in customer service, foot traffic, and the group social atmospheres that most of us have spent the pandemic avoiding. To reopen a restaurant at this point is not about returning to normal, but adaptation and survival in an ongoing state of uncertainty.” Now more than ever, restaurants need to embody three qualities: agility, proactiveness, and flexibility.

Precautions to take to reopen a restaurant

All restaurants need to establish some rules for both staff and patrons: limiting the amount of traffic in the restaurant, rearranging restaurant functions to limit proximity to others, and enacting general health & safety protocols. 

Here are a few precautions implement when you reopen a restaurant:

  1. Enforce health safeguards for both staff and patrons
    • Encourage mask use for employees & restaurant patrons when not actively eating. Though mask usage may seem obvious, it’s best to clearly encourage it at all possible times, like when customers are ordering. 
    • Purchase an infrared thermometer for testing temperatures of customers and staff. It is generally advised that a temperature at or above 100.4 degrees fahrenheit is considered a fever.
  2. Rotate or stagger shifts to limit the number of employees in the restaurant or bar at the same time.
    • To determine your restaurant’s maximum occupancy, the U.S. Fire Administration recommends to “simply calculate the area of a circle with a radius of 6 feet, which is equal to approximately 113 square feet per person.” Then, use this as a basic guide in accordance with your restaurant’s square footage, design, and layout. 
  3. Rearrange & adapt spaces (both kitchen and dining areas)
    • Practice social distancing by at least 6 feet
      • Arrange all dining tables to be at least 6 feet apart
      • Protect kitchen staff by rearranging the back-of house to comply with this if possible
      • Provide physical guides, such as stickers or tape on floors or sidewalks and signage, to show the flow of traffic within the restaurant. This will lessen the amount of times people cross paths. 
      • Install physical barriers — such as sneeze guards and partitions — particularly in areas where it is difficult for individuals to remain at least 6 feet apart.
      • Discourage crowded waiting areas by using mobile apps, text technology, or signs to alert patrons when their table is ready. Avoid using “buzzers” or other shared objects.
    • Increase ventilation
      • For any indoor seating, ensure that ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example, through opening windows and doors.
    • Transitioning to outdoor dining 
      • There are many ways to take advantage of outdoor areas if you don’t already have a patio area.
        • Look up local regulations and see how to obtain a permit for occupying sidewalks or traffic lanes in your area
      • Prepare for colder weather 
        • To be proactive, restaurants should be preparing for outdoor seating in the long run. This means having heaters or fireplaces for colder weather, and setting up a  nice ambiance to encourage people to keep coming back.
  4. Limit the spread of germs
    • Avoid using or sharing items that are reusable, such as menus, condiments, utensils, and any other food containers. Instead, invest in disposable or digital menus, single serving condiments, and no-touch trash cans and doors.
    • Place hand sanitizer dispensers in waiting areas or at individual tables, if supplies are available.
    • Use contactless payment as much as possible. Cash and even credit cards can be very conducive to the spreading of germs and disease. According to a 2017 study conducted in New York City, researchers found microorganisms living on the surface of cash, ranging from mouth and vaginal bacteria to flu-like viruses. eTip can help eliminate this problem by allowing customers to tip your restaurant servers through QR codes.

Tips for keeping your restaurant clean & sanitized

On top of reducing social contact between people, to reopen a restaurant it is essential to public health to maintain a hygienic cooking and dining space. The following are cleaning tips that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shared:

  1. Daily or as much as possible, clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces like work stations, bathroom stalls, door handles, etc.
  2. Clean commonly shared surfaces between each use like payment terminals, countertops, tables, receipt trays, and condiments.
  3. For cleaning products, use ones that are appropriate for each surface and meet EPA disinfection guidelines. Make sure the disinfectant remains on the surface for the recommended amount of time by the manufacturer.
  4. Create a disinfection routine that incorporates the above steps and train staff on proper cleaning procedures.
  5. Make sure that cleaning product residues are not left on surfaces, since they could cause allergic reactions or someone could accidentally ingest the chemicals.
  6. When handling trash, use gloves at all times. Wash hands thoroughly after removing gloves.
  7. If disposable high-use items are not feasible, ensure that non-disposable food service items are handled with gloves and washed completely, with dish soap and hot water, or in a dishwasher. Linen items (napkins and tablecloths) should be laundered after each use. Use gloves during cleaning and wash hands thoroughly after.

Educating your restaurant staff about reopening

To operate in the current environment and reopen a restaurant, it is quintessential that all restaurant staff are on the same page. If a restaurant employee contracts COVID-19 and continues to come to work, they are endangering their fellow employees, the restaurant’s patrons, and the business’ image. Knowing this, it is crucial to lower the risks as much as possible for employees and customers, as well as enacting strict rules for employees coming to work. You may want to have employees complete a checklist before each shift that includes the following topics:

  • Enforce that all employees who are returning to work after travelling get tested for COVID-19 first.
  • Conduct daily health checks (e.g., temperature screening and/or or symptom checking) of staff safely and respectfully.
  • Designate a staff person for each shift to be responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns. All staff members need to know who this person is and how to contact them.
  • Encourage staff to report if anyone close to them (friends, family, roommate, etc.) has tested positive for COVID-19, and set a prerequisite that they must get tested before coming back to work.

Educating your restaurant customers about reopening

It is everyone’s job to limit and slow the spread of the virus, and customers are no exception. When customers assume the risk to support your business, restaurant owners need to be sure to promote the education of business rules and general precautions to take.

  • Utilize signage to educate customers of ways to reduce risk
    • “Do not enter if you have shown the following symptoms…”
    • “Masks are required to enter this establishment”
  • Show rules of the business publicly: (and be sure to post any changes to avoid mishaps)
    • Spread awareness of your restaurant’s rules through:
      • Social media
      • Website
      • Signage
Reopening restaurant visitation Policy from Drake’s Dealership, Oakland, CA 
Source: Piedmont Exedra
Visitation Policy from Drake’s Dealership, Oakland, CA
Source: Piedmont Exedra
County reopening guidelines for hanging in restaurants — King County downloadable signs to print and post
County guidelines for hanging in restaurants —Source: King County downloadable signs to print and post
Sign for reopening restaurant policy —  Darden Restaurants
Sign for restaurant policy — Source: Darden Restaurants
Signs encouraging mask use— Krog Street Market, Atlanta, GA
Signs encouraging mask use— Krog Street Market, Atlanta, GA
Source: Eater Atlanta
Example of social media reopening restaurant guideline announcements
Source: @westeggcafe on Instagram
Example of social media restaurant guideline announcements
Source: @westeggcafe on Instagram
Reopen restaurant sign at West Egg Cafe, Atlanta 
Source: @westeggcafe on Instagram
West Egg Cafe, Atlanta 
Source: @westeggcafe on Instagram

How to handle uncooperative customers when you reopen a restaurant

Even with signage and business rules openly displayed, some patrons might still be uncooperative and disregard the rules. In cases like this, it is recommended to stop, take a breath, and remember to act rationally. Then you can use the N.I.C.E system to handle the situation.

  • N: Neutralize emotions. Employees should go into the situation with neutralized emotions so they can keep a level-head and stay rational. These encounters can be incredibly frustrating and nerve-wracking for employees to face, so neutralizing emotions and staying calm is the key to a positive outcome.
  • I: Identify the type of customer you’re dealing with. Did this person have a bad day or experience that caused the acting out? Are they confused or misinformed? Are they using the outburst to try to gain something? Or are they just a bully? Understanding their motives can help an employee decide how to proceed with the conversation.
  • C: Control the encounter. Once you’ve listened to the customer’s concerns, in the case of COVID and business rules, employees will want to make sure that the customer knows that the business rules were communicated and reiterate them if necessary. While doing this it is important to keep a slow, low, and controlled tone of voice. A calm demeanor can carry over to the customer and help them to settle down. 
  • E: Explore options. Even after attempting to control the situation, it is possible that alternate options will need to be discussed. Employees should be prepared to give the customer other resources, contact the manager, or even the police if the situation gets too escalated. For this step, you will want to have a talk with your restaurant team to go over the steps to take in extreme situations. 


During these unprecedented times, the right answers might not always be clear for high-service businesses like restaurants. Because of the ever-changing environment, restaurant owners and staff need to be flexible in their accommodations, agile in responding to new developments with COVID-19, and proactive in planning for the future. If restaurant owners follow these guidelines and stay prepared and alert, restaurants will be a safer and more enjoyable atmosphere for staff and patrons alike. 

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