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Restaurants Reopen, But Diners Aren’t Quite Ready to Come Back

A new Office of National Statistics survey has over 60 percent of respondents “uncomfortable” with dining in

Diners eat in at a restaurant opening in London
Diners sitting in at Marksman, in Hackney
Michaël Protin

Just over a week after London’s restaurants reopened for dine-in service, a new survey suggests that outdoor eating and deliveries are going to take priority a while longer. Little over 20 percent of 1,788 people surveyed by the Office of National Statistics said they would be comfortable having a meal to sit in, while over 60 percent said they would either be uncomfortable or very uncomfortable, according to the BBC.

Around 35 percent of the same people said they would be happy with eating outside, with “a similar number” saying they would be uncomfortable. The survey reinforces a less-talked about, but vital part of the future for restaurants that has been in play since lockdown: A restaurant that has reopened can’t make money if diners don’t want to go inside.

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 has been 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.” And as much as chancellor Rishi Sunak might like to believe it, a discount voucher isn’t going to be a cure.