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8 out of 10 Americans have concerns about returning to dine-in restaurants, new data shows

This scene is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon, trend watchers say

Passengers on the Charleston Princess get food from a buffet made by Swig and Swine during a Blues and BBQ Harbor Cruise in October. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

“Eatertainment” was supposed to be the runaway restaurant trend of 2020, with people flocking to adult arcades and participatory sports venues, such as Topgolf, where they could congregate in large groups and roam freely in unconfined spaces.

So much for that.

Under gathering restrictions intended to contain the coronavirus, the only kind of eatertainment most Americans these days are experiencing is Netflix and takeout. But new data suggests most of them aren’t in any hurry to return to the previous model, which doesn’t conform to their current notions of safe social distance.

According to surveys conducted by food research firm Datassential, food courts and food halls are also poised to take a hit as diners seek out places where they’ll have limited contact with strangers.

“People are still fairly nervous about what it means to use a restaurant,” Datassential group Mark Brandau said in a Wednesday afternoon presentation hosted by Nation’s Restaurant News.

Georgia, the only state thus far to establish a reopening date for dine-in restaurants, hasn’t issued guidelines for full-service operations, but California Gov. Gavin Newsom has suggested mandated practices in his state could include disposable menus, reduced seating capacity and temperature checks at the door.

Of those measures, reduced seating capacity is by far the most popular with prospective diners, Datassential found. More than 80 percent of people surveyed said they would accept rules keeping guests at least 6 feet apart, requiring guests to sanitize their hands upon entering the restaurant and preventing patrons from standing at the bar.

By contrast, only 65 percent of respondents said they would be understanding if a restaurant offered a mobile or chalkboard menu exclusively. And just over half of the diners said they’d be sympathetic if a restaurant demanded its guests wear masks while not eating or drinking.

“What we don’t have our heads wrapped around yet is requiring guests to wear masks,” Brandau said. “That’s a bit of a tougher ask right now.”

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Still, diners generally like the idea of masked servers, which Brandau characterized as surprising “given how much more we distrust other people.” Datassential found 46 percent of diners do not trust fellow diners at all.

“But it’s all incredibly nuanced, right?” he said.

For instance, Nation’s Restaurant News senior editor Ron Ruggless said, a restaurant in Shanghai has shifted to tableside sanitation, making a show of dipping cutlery before giving it to a guest. While the theatrics don’t necessarily make the utensils cleaner, guests might find the optics reassuring.

Yet the question remains if people will return to restaurants to witness such safety displays. Datassential found 8 percent to 10 percent of eaters plan to stick with curbside pickup once restaurants reopen. About the same percentage of people surveyed said they may never dine at a restaurant again.

Still, 67 percent of people indicated they “will dine in cautiously.”

As to when they’ll start doing so, 17 percent of people say only when there have been “no new cases in the U.S. for a while.” Another 16 percent are waiting on a proven vaccine.

Brandau speculated few of them are likely to make a beeline for buffets, “which will have a pretty long road to recovery.” They’re also not especially keen to watch the game at a sports bar or “splurge on a fine dining meal,” despite only 14 percent of people citing finances as what would keep them from dining out after May 1.

What could draw people back into the restaurant sphere is coffee. One of the signs of normalcy that people miss, Brandau said, is the habit of grabbing a cup on the way to work in the morning.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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