Restaurants have been closed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with catastrophic results for business and employment. Restaurant and food service jobs make up about 9 percent of those in the state, and in 2018 the industry accounted for almost $19 billion in sales. Many of the region’s farmers and fishermen depend on restaurants for survival. And diners depend on them for sustenance, entertainment, and community.
Governor Charlie Baker’s phased reopening plan for Massachusetts gives restaurants the green light in phase two, which begins June 8 at the earliest. When will the public be ready to return to dining rooms, and what will that look like? Last week on BostonGlobe.com and via social media, we asked readers to take an unscientific survey posing those very questions and others. We got 1,000 responses, and from the results, a picture begins to emerge of a strong customer base reestablishing itself within a year, with safety measures plentiful and visible, and customers willing to pay more for the experience. (Numbers have been rounded to the nearest percent.)
Half of people say they would feel comfortable eating in restaurants again 3 months to a year after phase two begins, with 28 percent choosing a 3- to 6-month time period after reopening, and 22 percent a 6- to 12-month time period. Eighteen percent would return as soon as possible, 13 percent a month after reopening, and 19 percent a year or more after phase two begins. (A poll earlier this month by Suffolk University, The Boston Globe, and WGBH News found that 42 percent of respondents would feel comfortable eating out once allowed, with numbers increasing to 64 percent if there were an effective treatment, and 85 percent with a vaccine.)
Many respondents have continued to order takeout or delivery from restaurants during this time, with 30 percent doing so regularly and 34 percent sometimes ordering. Twenty-one percent are rarely getting takeout, and 14 percent aren’t doing so at all. Once permitted to return to dining rooms, 10 percent plan to do so multiple times a week, 39 percent once a week, 31 percent once a month, and 20 percent on special occasions only.
What kinds of safety measures will diners want to see when that happens? When it comes to restaurant staff wearing masks, 49 percent of diners say they require it, and 16 percent prefer it. Thirty-one percent feel masks diminish the dining experience but are necessary, and 5 percent say it diminishes the dining experience and they would prefer staffers don't wear masks.
Most diners embrace the idea of wearing masks themselves: 41 percent plan to do so throughout the dining experience, except when actively eating. Thirty-three percent would wear a mask into the restaurant but remove it once seated. Just 2 percent would not put on a mask unless prompted to by restaurant staff. And 24 percent of respondents are not interested in going out to eat if required to wear a mask.
Hand-sanitizing stations for staff and customers will be a must, with 88 percent of respondents hoping to see them in restaurants. Eighty-five percent want to see all staffers wearing masks, while 51 percent hope to also find staff in gloves. Keep your credit cards in your wallets: 79 percent want touchless payments. Although 63 percent hope for some kind of divider between tables, just 11 percent want to see them between diners. People would like each restaurant to post a COVID-19 Control Plan (60 percent) but are less eager for temperature checks at the door (39 percent).
Despite strong interest in returning to restaurants, respondents aren’t always confident the experience will be safe. Thirteen percent are very confident in restaurants’ ability to operate with relative safety. Thirty-four percent are somewhat confident, 38 percent are not particularly confident, and 15 percent are not at all confident. Six percent are very confident their fellow diners will behave safely, 22 percent are somewhat confident, 42 percent are not particularly confident, and 30 percent are not at all confident.
When restaurants reopen, most customers will seek out the tried, true, and trusted: 98 percent will frequent a few familiar independent restaurants they have visited in the past. Thirteen percent are likely to hit up a variety of new, buzzworthy restaurants with food they are curious to try. And 8 percent will be inclined to head to chain restaurants.
Special occasions will still be celebrated with dinner at a restaurant, according to 50 percent of respondents. But a special occasion isn't required: 53 percent plan to eat out just because. Forty-one percent will head to restaurants to spend a night out with friends, and 6 percent will do so for business-related entertaining.
When restaurants reopen, capacity will likely be diminished because of distancing requirements. Given that and other factors that will cut into restaurants’ profits, 40 percent of customers say they’d be willing to pay 10 percent more for a meal, and about the same amount — 41 percent — would spend 25 percent more. Seven percent would pay 50 percent more, and 1 percent would pay twice as much for a meal. Twelve percent of respondents are not willing to pay more than they did before the pandemic.
How will tipped employees fare, taking on increased risk and serving a reduced customer base? One percent of respondents say they would tip less than 15 percent, 37 percent would tip 15-20 percent, 58 percent would tip 25 to 35 percent, 4 percent would tip 40-50 percent, and 1 percent would tip 50-100 percent.