The question of what dining out will look like once the COVID-19 pandemic has passed is a persistent one. It’s debated by chefs and business owners, as well as people around the world who took going out for a meal for granted. As restaurants everywhere shutter for good, those that survive are now faced with the challenge of figuring out how to safely lure cautious diners back into seats. One possible solution has been posited as a way to let customers socially distance while dining out: plastic shields mounted at tables to prevent unnecessary contact.
Metro UK reported that restaurants in Italy are planning to adopt “plexiglass dividers” that would separate diners, keeping them at a safe distance during meals. The shields will supposedly keep diners from touching, therefore decreasing the chance of transmitting the virus. Similarly, US News reported that a restaurant in Holland called ETEN is testing glass boxes for couples to sit in during their meal, while waiters will wear face masks and plastic shields to protect themselves during service.
While efforts to help wary diners feel safe at restaurants are probably well meaning, they also feel like a bit of an attention-grabbing publicity stunt. This simply isn’t a sustainable way to get customers to start going back to restaurants.
“Going off of what we’ve seen so far with masks, I don’t think Americans will take to barriers on the table,” Jake Barnett, co-founder of Kansas City’s Old Fashioned Beverage & Hospitality wrote in an email. “I think you’ll see a lot of restaurants go to a more classic dining style, with spread-out sections of fewer tables, more two- and four-top booths, and unfortunately, no more communal tables for quite a long while.”
So why are face shields destined to fail from the get-go? Well, the first problem that arises is how to keep them clean. Eating is a messy business, even if diners are required to wear masks and gloves at the table. Inevitably, people will lift their masks to cough or sneeze, and whether we want to admit it or not, spit tends to fly during any meal. No doubt that halfway through the meal, the shield around the table will be spattered with a whole host of unseemly bodily liquids that will now be on full display between the diners in question.
Restaurants might stipulate that no touching of the shield is allowed, but how can they enforce that rule? A tiny table crowded with dishes, wine glasses, and silverware is sure to be touched repeatedly by diners, including by accident. Even with the addition of gloves, diners wll bump into the glass with an exposed hand or elbow. The result will be a sheet of plastic that will need to be constantly scrubbed if not outright bleached.
“These panels are clear color and, as sometimes can happen with regular glass, people could easily bang their nose into it, kids playing with it could get injured, and now, more than ever, is not the right time to get a lawsuit for something that is essentially being installed to help and protect our guests, but would then endanger the economy of the restaurant,” Francesco Sinatra, CEO at Los Angeles Italian restaurant and pasta shop Pasta Sisters wrote to me in an email. “I would prefer to separate the tables six feet apart for social distancing and maybe lose some capability than make my customers feel uncomfortable and boxed up like fish in a tank.”
How can a busy staff of waiters serve customers and thoroughly wash plastic dividers between every seating without quickly burning out or indefinitely holding up other people waiting to be seated? If this method of social distancing is widely adopted, will struggling restaurants be required to buy their own plastic shields? On top of climbing out of debt and paying for the bare minimum supplies that were prohibitively expensive even before the pandemic, can they shoulder this new financial burden? Probably not.
“If before the COVID-19 those same panels were cheap, now the prices went up over 200 percent,” Sinatra continued. “For restaurants like mine with around 50 dining tables, I would need to spend something like $6,000 to $8,000 to add these protections. However, in the current state of things, as we are not generating much revenue, and just barely paying the bills, who has the money to invest in these kinds of ‘add-ons’ that might likely in a few months be stored away and never to be used again?”
Not to mention the fact that they’ll need to be changed out by an already overtaxed staff that will undoubtedly be learning how to navigate a job that now requires their own masks and face guards at the same time. The prospect is overwhelming even to write about.
The other problem is that people go out to eat as much for the meal as for the atmosphere. Couples and friends go out to eat together for intimacy and connection, the chance to sit close and talk and laugh, to clink glasses and celebrate. Some of us actually enjoy the prospect of eating in a crowd full of joyful people, catching snippets of their conversation and drinking in the excited vibe of 20 other people also marveling over their delicious food. Going out to eat should not be a lonely, uncomfortable, awkward two hours during which you navigate a plastic shield that prevents you from even delivering a proper cheers to your companion.
That doesn’t rule out the possibility that some industrious restaurateurs could make it work.
“Although we had never hoped that the future of dining would include plexiglass dividers and dining shields, I do see them helping at restaurants in the US which have always been about convenience, safety, and speed,” Nick Marsh, CEO of Founders Table Restaurant Group, which owns Dos Toros and Chopt, wrote in an email. Marsh added that his restaurants are currently implementing “an additional laundry list of safety measures” including contactless ordering, and they are “rethinking convenience and safety in all of our channels.”
Plastic shields might seem like a clever way to encourage people to get back into restaurants, bolstering business while attempting to make life seem like it’s gone back to normal. But no one will be tempted to enjoy a restaurant meal if they can’t even touch their friends or catch up without muffling their voices behind a mask — and restaurants won’t last long if their staff must dedicate half their time to spraying spit-splattered shields with windex before pouring the wine.
If restaurants rush to reopen by using plastic shields at the tables, all of the joy will disappear from dining out. And that’s no way to ensure restaurants will survive long term. There are no shortcuts to safely dining out once the pandemic has passed — and this is one especially that will hurt restaurants and diners more than it will help.