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Wherefore Art Thou, Indoor Dining?

Some folks drinking red wine and chatting

After more than a year of significant indoor dining restrictions, restaurants though the worst was over. Patrons, many of whom were vaccinated, enjoyed some return to normalcy as indoor seating returned. But it appears the moment may have been fleeting. Many communities are having significant increases in the number of COVID cases associated with the delta variant. And as a result, indoor dining and COVID restrictions are once again back in place. This not only applies to individual restaurants but to some franchisees and entire cities as well.

The constant changes in policies related to indoor dining and COVID restrictions are enough to make customers’ heads spin. Depending on where one is, the rules seem to change. Plus, with so much variation in delta variant infection rates, customers must also weigh their own specific risks. As a result, indoor dining restrictions are anything but consistent, and naturally, there are major differences in opinions. But one thing is certain…indoor dining is anything but normal. And customers are not likely to feel completely comfortable dining indoors for some time to come.

“We’re monitoring the impact of the Delta variant closely and recently convened together with our franchisees to underscore existing safety protocols, reinforce our people first approach and provide updates on the rise in cases in the country.” – McDonald’s Corp

Major Restaurant Chains and COVID Restrictions

One of the more challenging aspects of indoor dining restrictions involve determining nation-wide policies. When the pandemic first struck, many fast-food restaurant chains quickly shut down seating inside. This was not only to protect patrons but also their own staff. Fortunately, most were able to survive by switching to delivery, drive-through, and takeout. Once the vaccination became available, most then reopened indoor dining and COVID restrictions lifted. But now, many such chains are having to reevaluate the best approach given the situation currently. Because of regional variations, this has been difficult.

(Read more on how the food service industry has adapted to the curveballs thrown by the pandemic in this Bold story.)

Recently, McDonalds held a conference call with all of its franchisees. Though the company hoped to fully lift all indoor dining restrictions by Labor Day, this has since changed. Company representatives have instructed franchisees who have more than 250 COVID cases per 100,000 people to close indoor dining. PMTD, which operates Taco Bell and KFC, have also had to revisit indoor dining and COVID policies. In Alabama and Georgia, they restricted hours of operation, closing as early as 8pm. As a significant number of employees contracted the delta variant, they had little choice. And given that late-night dining is nearly a fifth of sales, the decision was a tough one to make.

“There is no magic bullet, just a combination of a hard stick and soft stick. The proof of vaccination mandate is a soft stick because you can still eat outdoors, but if you want to hang out with people indoors you better get vaccinated.” – Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, Infectious Disease Expert, University of California, San Francisco

Indoor Dining and COVID Changes in Major Cities

While fast-food chains like McDonalds and PMTD have the own struggles, so do local restaurants. Some cities are now requiring proof of COVID vaccination in order to dine inside a restaurant. San Francisco was the first to do so recently as part of their indoor dining restrictions. This has required restaurant managers to develop new processes to ensure their compliance with the city’s law. In some cases, they have had to hire additional employees. Of course, non-vaccinated patrons can still seat outdoors and dine, if it’s available. But these indoor dining and COVID restrictions are certainly another issue with which restaurants are having to deal.

A bunch of people socially distancing in a restaurant
Mixing indoor dining and COVID has been a rough ride, but hopefully things will change for the better.

San Francisco is not the only city that is imposing new indoor dining and COVID policies. In New Orleans, the city requires either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for indoor dining or drinking. In New York City, those who want to dine indoors must have at least partial vaccination. As is evident, more and more cities are requiring these indoor dining restrictions to be in place. The majority of restaurant managers welcome these protections, particularly for their own staff. But at the same time, they’re naturally concerned it could affect their business.

“It’s frustrating for diners and for restaurants right now. We don’t have an adequate supply chain. We’re figuring we’re going to be shorthanded. For us to be able to deliver on a great customer experience is hard enough when the guests are happy.” – Larry Reinstein, Restaurant Consultant

Making a Good Choice About Indoor Dining

Understandably, both restaurant chains and cities want to be proactive in adjusting indoor dining and COVID policies. But given the fact so many factors are at play, it’s impossible to do this well on an individual basis. Overall, the number of COVID cases recently increased 3% while hospitalizations increased 6%. But these numbers vary significantly from one community to the next. And those with serious illness tend to be those who are unvaccinated and/or have concurrent medical conditions. Each of these must be considered when making a decision about indoor dining. In some instances, virtual dining may be the better option.

The best-case scenario for indoor dining safety is one where the majority are vaccinated, good ventilation exists, and servers are masked. This has been shown to have the lowest risk of spreading the virus. This is why many cities and franchises are imposing indoor dining restrictions to make such a situation more likely. But each person should also consider their own personal risks since restaurants are unable to do so. This means learning about the community’s current rate of infection and considering one’s own health status. Indoor dining and COVID restrictions are not likely to go away for the foreseeable future. And therefore, this remains the best strategy for now.


The official Bold Business survey results are clear: most favor work-from-home over going back to the office. Read more in this important Bold story!

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