Dining Room Reopening Rules Are Mixed

Restaurants encounter extra costs and a patchwork of laws for welcoming back diners.

June 15, 2020

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Restaurant franchise owners reopening their dining rooms are shelling out thousands of dollars to make required safety enhancements, while navigating a patchwork of state and local recommendations that make operating locations in multiple jurisdictions challenging, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Costs include face masks and gloves for staff, hiring additional employees to handle stepped up cleaning and installing plexiglass shields to separate tables and providing hand sanitizer for guests, among others. Not to mention the business hit operators are taking from having to drastically reduce seating at a time when they need to serve more customers, not fewer.

“We would like to see a consistent standard, so franchisees don’t have to comply with a bunch of laws,” Misty Chally, executive director for the Coalition of Franchisee Associations trade group, told the Journal.

Among the 36 states now allowing patrons to dine-in statewide, 19 say restaurants can fill up to half their seats and four have lower limits, according to investment research firm Gordon Haskett. Six states restrict sit-down service to certain counties, while seven others only allow outdoor dining, the Journal reports.

“There simply wasn’t a blanket set of restrictions that applied to all,” James Miller, chief executive of Vision Investment Group Inc., told the Journal. The Indiana-based company owns 42 Subway eateries in three states. “I don’t see us being able to recoup what we lost this year,” he said.

Daniel Fitzpatrick, who runs 227 Burger King and Chili’s outlets across seven states, said rules are changing fast. At his 100-plus Burger King locations in Florida, store staff closed tables and installed plexiglass in early May as Florida limited capacity to 25% occupancy when dine-in service reopened. Two weeks later, the restaurants had to make more adjustments when Florida raised the capacity limit. Since then, Indiana and Ohio decided on a 50% capacity rule, while Delaware last week set its at 30%. “It’s very random,” Fitzpatrick told the Journal. Business at his Burger King locations has remained strong via drive-thru service, but sales at his Chili’s restaurants fell by 75% in March and April, he said.

Apart from government laws and guidance, Arby’s, McDonald’s and other quick-serve restaurant chains have created their own guidelines for reopening their franchise dining rooms. Arby’s recommended that its franchisees post signs reading, “We have the meats, but only half the seats,” on tables closed to diners to allow for social distancing, the Journal reports. At Pizza Hut, running ceiling fans is off limits for now.

The Centers for Disease Control has created a Workplace Design Tool and a Resuming Business Toolkit  to help non-essential businesses prepare to bring back employees and reopen operations.

Meanwhile, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Nevada, Oregon and Texas are among more than a dozen states reporting a rise in cases and hospitalizations, and health officials worry that restarting local economies too fast could spark additional COVID-19 outbreaks, especially in states that weren’t as hard hit initially as areas like New York. As of Friday, the U.S. had more than two million confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 114,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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