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When Restaurants Can Reopen, Many Diners Won’t Be Ready to Go Back

A YouGov poll evidencing discomfort makes it clear that restaurants will need to meet people where they are to survive

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Coronavirus In London restaurants David Cliff/NurPhoto/Getty Images

There will be no grand reopening for restaurants. Restaurants can’t go back to “normal.” And when they do reopen, they’ll have to meet diners where they are.

A new YouGov poll that surveyed respondents across the U.K. provides some ballast to a thus far unspoken, but manifestly important slice of all COVID-19 restaurant discourse right now: A restaurant that can reopen still can’t make money if diners are too cautious to go inside. 57 percent of people surveyed said they would be “uncomfortable” entering restaurants; that rises to 58 percent for coffee shops and 63 percent for pubs, with restaurants and pubs already earmarked as being last to “exit” lockdown measures. The poll covered people who identified themselves as “regularly” visiting restaurants, cafes, and pubs, and omitted respondents who said they “don’t go to this place anyway.”

These attitudes underscore an increasingly clear mantra for the industry: how restaurants reopen is the nub of any survival strategy, much more so than when. As Vaughn Tan writes in his examination of the existential and practical challenges restaurants face during the novel coronavirus pandemic: “Any existing restaurant business model is incompatible with this new social and economic reality.”

A restaurant can mitigate risk, with epidemiologically validated hygiene practices and social distancing measures evidenced in countries already reopening, but it can’t mitigate fear; nor can it ask customers to ignore their concerns. In what might be a snapshot into the future for London’s restaurants, overcoming wariness is a real challenge for restaurateurs in Beijing: “Getting any customers to confidently eat restaurant food again remains one of the industry’s biggest obstacles. Diners are spooked.”

That won’t always be the case, as time passes, but it’s another string that restaurants will have to add to their bow in the coming months.