New parameters for restaurants eager to reopen amid COVID-19

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HAKINMHAN/iStockBy KELLY MCCARTHY, ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- As state and local governments unveil plans to reopen restaurants amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the hard-hit industry is ready for a comeback, but dining will look different under new guidelines.

Before the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S., the restaurant industry was projected to make $899 billion in sales in 2020, according to the National Restaurant Association. Now, the association anticipates losses totaling $240 billion by the end of 2020.

Established eateries all over the country from major cities like New York and Los Angeles to smaller family-operated restaurants have tried to survive with limited service operations dwindled to delivery or takeout.

Sandra Bonaparte, the general manager of El Floridita in Hollywood, California, told ABC News that the former lively Cuban restaurant has been "completely closed" for six weeks.

"We used to do live music and salsa dancing and it would get packed -- it was a lot of fun," she said, harkening back to the bustling crowds before coronavirus hit. "I think we’ll be okay, but it’s not sustainable for the long haul. We need to open up."

Another restaurateur from Roswell, Georgia, Ryan Pernice, wondered if an industry based on warmth and hospitality, could thrive adhering to cold and sterile guidelines.

"You know, there’s a question of can we even make money if we reopen given the new social distancing guidelines," Pernice told ABC News. "We had three full-service restaurants and then as of March 16, 17, we were operating one sort of combined takeout menu out of one restaurant."

Larry Lynch, senior vice president of Science and Industry for the National Restaurant Association, told ABC News that the staggering unemployment numbers in the country are largely made up of restaurant workers.

"The numbers I’ve seen are in the millions of people who are unemployed coming out of the restaurant industry. And I know that’s why a lot of restaurants are anxious to get their people back ... and get them working again," Lynch said.

While some restaurants were "very creative" in modifications to takeout and delivery models, Lynch said "now what we’re seeing is an opportunity in some locations to reopen. So what we’ve focused on is providing them with the guidance on the way they can do it the safest both for their employees and as well as consumers."

The National Restaurant Association has released a set of guidelines in tandem with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to help advise restaurants on how to safely reopen.

Some of the new requirements include social distancing parameters, face coverings, additional cleaning and sanitation as well as frequent hand-washing.

"First and foremost is the face coverings," Lynch said. "And that’s both for the employees and potentially for guests as well. Obviously, you can’t eat while you’re wearing a face covering, but if you’re waiting outside or waiting in line we want to make sure that we’re protecting each other."

He added that they "want to emphasize the importance of hand-washing and the frequency of hand-washing."

"The next thing, obviously, is the cleaning and sanitation. So thinking about the tabletops, the chairs. If you’re not using disposable menus, make sure you’re wiping them down. Condiments that are on tables," Lynch explained.

As for social distancing, Lynch said restaurants will need to consider "how you separate your guests when they come in, separating the tables. You know, are there some kind of barriers that can be put in place?"

The challenge, he noted, is to figure out how those CDC and FDA guidelines will "play out in 50 different states."

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp gave restaurants the green light to reopen but has limited them to allowing just 10 customers per 300-square feet of dining space.

For restaurants like Table and Main, Pernice said the small space with limitations is quite restrictive.

"Our restaurant Table and Main is tiny. It’s 1,800-square-feet, it’s got only 52 seats inside. So a busy summer there would be around 200 covers. Now we’re looking at less than half that," he explained.

Lynch provided Florida as an example, "where they’ve been permitted to open at a 25% capacity."

"For a lot of restaurateurs they realize they can’t make money at 25% and it’s actually better for them to stay closed at this point in time," he said.

Pernice said that while some people will think "oh now you can open -- there's going to be a rush to get open," but said it's not that simple. "To do that properly takes some time."

"Restaurateurs recognize that they have to figure out a way to make people feel comfortable," Lynch added.

Bonaparte said her staff is thinking ahead about their most dedicated patrons who could face other difficulties.

"We have some regulars that have been with us for 30 years and some of them are in their 80s ... so we’re cautious of that," she said.

For Pernice, it means "training the staff on how to deal with guests at more of an arm's length when we’ve spent all our time for the last nine years trying to make guests feel like there’s just a big bear hug when you come into the restaurants. We can’t do that anymore."

Bonaparte said right now they are in survival mode and reopening is just the first step.

"We’re just trying to adapt, you know, to make sure that we’re still around. I mean, we’ve survived the LA riots, we survived 9/11, we survived 2008, so there’s been a lot, the earthquakes in California," she said. "We’ve survived all of that."

Lynch reiterated that "over time we'll adjust -- it's going to take time."

"It's like anything we see when we have issues," he said, "we take a look at what we’re faced with and figure out, how can we get back to as close to normal as we possibly can?"

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