PHOENIX — If restaurants reopen later this month, don’t expect the same dining experience you might have had just two months ago.
Some of this will be obvious.
Look for everyone from the person who seats you to the waiters and even the staff in the kitchen to be wearing masks and gloves.
You probably won’t find ketchup, salt and even sugar packets on the table when you’re seated.
And there’s a decent chance you won’t be handing your credit card to the waiter but instead will pay your bill right at the table.
But Steve Chucri, president of the Arizona Restaurant Association, said some of this likely will be only temporary, as Arizona adjusts to life in the wake of COVID-19 and customers find a comfort level with going out again.
Chucri and his organization will be at the center of coming up with at least some guidelines for dining out after Gov. Doug Ducey said earlier this week he hopes to once again allow restaurants to actually serve meals to be consumed on premises, possibly as early as May 12.
All that disappeared more than a month ago when the governor concluded that it is impossible to maintain “social distancing” and protect public health the way dine-in services normally operate. More to the point, Ducey said he wants Chucri’s help in figuring out how to provide safe dining even while there continue to be new infections.
The easy part, Chucri told Capitol Media Services, is in the “back of the house.” He said people in the kitchen already are wearing gloves and hair nets; face masks where they’re not in use now is just a small additional step.
But Chucri said that there are things that are going to occur even before they get on the premises.
He said some restaurants will be taking the temperature of employees when they get to work. Other options include asking them if they’ve been exposed to anyone who has the virus or whether they have any of the symptoms of COVID-19 ranging from loss of taste or smell to muscle pain, shaking with chills and shortness of breath.
More visible evidence, he said, will depend on the type of facility.
For example, he said, fast food and fast-casual establishments, where people place and pay for their orders at the counter, are likely to install plexiglass shields to at least partly separate the customers from the staff. These already are popping up elsewhere, including convenience stores.
Sitting down, however, creates different problems.
“In a fine-dining restaurant I think you are spaced apart enough being back to back,” Chucri said.
“If booths are really back-to-back, and I could reach over and touch the personally, then what we would recommend is that you leave that booth vacant.”
Want to order?
Chucri said that some establishments may go to single-use menus, perhaps printed on both sides. But he said that some restaurants with extensive listings — he specifically mentioned the Cheesecake Factory — may decide it makes more sense to keep the existing menus and wipe them down between customers.
Even getting to the table will be different.
Chucri figures that restaurants will have to scrap the practices where those waiting are all huddled just inside or outside the door. While one option is opening up patios, Chucri figures that technology may solve the problem, with restaurants getting the phone numbers of those hoping to be seated and telling them to wait — somewhere else — for a text.
Lower tech, he said, is finding out what kind of a car a waiting customer has and sending out someone to tell them the table is ready.
And once you’re inside?
“I think you’re going to see tables empty,” he said, with anything customers want being brought on request.
Ketchup for the hamburger? Perhaps a bottle that has been wiped down after the prior customers. But Chucri said it’s just as likely that the waiter will bring some tiny packets or, somewhat more upscale, some ketchup in a dish.
Ditto those packets of sweetner: If you want some, you’ll probably have to ask the waiter to bring it.
Chucri also said that technology that now is sparsely used is likely to become more prevalent, like pay-at-the-table terminals that exist at places like Olive Garden.
How long all this will last, he said, depends on the change.
On one hand, Chucri said that even before the pandemic fast-food restaurants were installing kiosks where customers could order and customize what they want and pay right there, without the need to interact with anyone else. He said other technology changes are likely to remain.
The masks and gloves?
Chucri compares the current situation to what happened after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks which led to clamping down on security and air travel of all sorts. He said that, over time, decisions were made to ease up, with things like Pre-Check to let people get on a plane without removing their shoes.
“I envision something similar,” Chucri said. He said there are many thing that could occur, like development of a a vaccine that means customers are no longer fearful of contracting the virus.
“Do I expect dining rooms to change en masse over the next 24 months or three years? No,” Churci said. “Do I expect dining rooms to look differently and act differently for the next six months to possibly a year? Yes.”