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Missing your Friday-night margaritas at the local Mexican joint? Happy hour just hasn’t been the same since the COVID-19 pandemic forced widespread bar and restaurant closures, but with reopenings already in progress and more on the horizon, it may be time to sip and savor in public once again.

Here’s what you can expect moving forward and a few other tidbits to keep in mind.

A Quick Look at CDC Guidelines

While government mandates regarding restaurant and bar reopenings are about as concrete as a wheel of brie on a hot day, there are some guidelines in place. Expect changes, but at the time of writing, this is a brief synopsis of what experts recommend:

  • Educating employees regarding symptoms to look for, when to stay home, and how they’ll be supported should they test positive
  • Implement new or reinforce existing hygiene standards including frequent handwashing
  • Require staff to use cloth face coverings
  • Stock an adequate amount of hygiene supplies such as soap, sanitizer, paper towels, and disinfectant wipes
  • Post signage that promotes protective measures
  • Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces frequently
  • Limit the use of shared objects
  • Alter store layouts to ensure physical distancing
  • Limit occupancy
  • Do drive-through, takeout, and curbside service whenever possible
  • Offer outdoor seating
  • Limit waiting areas to discourage group gatherings
  • Use physical barriers such as sneeze guards for added protection

Note that the CDC’s “considerations” are not only subject to change, but may also be adjusted, added to, or skipped altogether depending on input from state and local health officials.

A New Normal — Seating, Sanitizing, and Smiles Instead of Handshakes

Have you ever been to a bar where patrons sat six feet apart? Neither have we. Following the CDC’s recommendations in a setting that is designed to be anything but distant will be weird at first. Add to that the newly omnipresent hand sanitizing stations (many just-opened stores already have sanitizer pumps at doors and registers), prominent COVID-related signage, and portioning to keep patrons sequestered and you’re certainly not going to be enjoying your two fingers of Macallan in the same environment you’re used to.

On the positive side, if you like sipping drinks alfresco, you could be in for a treat. Bars that have the ability to add sidewalk seating or bigger outdoor spaces like patios or even roof decks could help bring back some of that convivial atmosphere while still respecting distancing requirements. You may not be huddled around the fire pit with friends, but you’ll be able to see them, talk to them, and revel in the kind of companionship you’ve been missing while stuck at home.

Cincinnati is even closing down streets to generate more outdoor seating options, following the lead of some European cities that have done the same. The idea of transforming low-traffic thoroughfares into beer gardens of sorts is intriguing, even to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. “I’ve been talking to restaurant owners … they’re making a great case that this could be a difference-maker,” de Blasio said. “You have the right social distancing and protections, the right capacity … and the right atmosphere.”

Reduced Options, New Approaches

As customer volume decreases, expect your options as far as food and drinks to dwindle as well. Big menus just aren’t sustainable when you don’t have enough people to eat through your inventory. You may see five whiskeys on offer where there used to be 10 and a handful of appetizers instead of a full page.

Mixologists have an opportunity here to create signature drinks, continuing to practice their craft and wow customers, even if the audience is slightly smaller and less likely to hang out all night.

On the other hand, bars and restaurants that have taken advantage of relaxed liquor laws to offer booze to-go could continue to do so, with others jumping on board. Take-home cocktail kits replicate the fun of cocktails out without the exposure. Mixologists have an opportunity here to create signature drinks, continuing to practice their craft and wow customers, even if the audience is slightly smaller and less likely to hang out all night. Pair those kits with virtual performances from the house band and bars willing to think outside the box could have a significant edge over their competitors.

Reality Bites

The saddest truth in the bar and restaurant industry right now is that many businesses won’t ever reopen. In his opinion piece for The New York Times, bar owner Toby Cecchini — who came down with COVID-19 himself and thankfully recovered —describes the government’s paycheck protection loans as “mere bandages on a gunshot wound.”

Noted restaurateur Danny Meyer says he won’t even try opening until there’s a vaccine. For some businesses, operating at 50% occupancy or lower and bringing in significantly less revenue is a death blow. It’s not just about surviving temporary closures; even when restaurants are allowed to reopen, can they realistically operate at a profit?

Here’s how you can do your part:

  • When you feel comfortable, visit your favorite bars and restaurants. Cheerleading from the sidelines is appreciated, but an influx of money is the only thing that will truly help keep businesses afloat.
  • Adhere to guidelines, including any additional rules bars may have posted. While the industry is still ramping up, lawmakers will be watching closely and evaluating compliance and risk. Patrons who refuse to honor six feet of distance or harass staff for wearing masks could threaten everyone’s livelihood and cause the system to regress.
  • If you see something, say something. Not comfortable with how a bar is doing business? If you feel a business is falling short, offer constructive criticism so owners have a better idea what they need to do to keep you coming back.
  • Above all, BE COMPASSIONATE. This is not the time to Yelp your disapproval over paper menus because you miss the fancy ones. Everyone is doing their best to tread uncharted waters and a little kindness goes a long way.

Tell us — are you ready to dine out again? How soon will you be settling onto a bar stool once your favorite pub opens up for business?

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