Now that COVID-19 vaccine accessibility is at an all-time high, the majority of Americans are finally ready to eat indoors at restaurants, new polling shows.
Morning Consult has tracked public sentiments about daily life during the pandemic since March 2020. As of April 25, approximately 57% of respondents said they felt comfortable eating indoors compared to the 68% of people who said they felt safe eating outdoors at a restaurant.
But indoor dining is still one of the riskiest activities to partake in with the coronavirus still spreading. Dr. Anthony Fauci told Insider’s Aylin Woodward that after he got vaccinated, he would still be avoiding “an indoor, crowded place where people are not wearing masks,” such as bars and restaurants.
The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the restaurant industry as state and local governments set restrictions against indoor dining to prevent the airborne transmission of the virus.
A report from the National Restaurant Association said that more than 110,000 restaurants and bars closed either temporarily or for good in 2020 from the pandemic. The report also noted that restaurants brought in $240 billion less than what the National Restaurant Association predicted pre-pandemic.
As of April 28, every state allows for some form of indoor dining, but at least 30 states still have some restrictions in place regarding restaurant capacity or party numbers.
With indoor dining restrictions relaxed, many restaurants – especially chains – are struggling to hire enough workers. Some business owners claim that the congressionally granted $300 weekly boost in federal unemployment benefits has made it more difficult to employ workers, though some experts are suggesting that the problem is easily solved by simply paying the workers more.
President Joe Biden announced in early April that every American adult would be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine by April 19. Before coming into office, the president said his goal was to ensure 100 million Americans received a dose of the vaccine in his first 100 days – a goal that was surpassed on March 19.
Biden later pushed the goal to 200 million vaccine doses administered by his 100th day, April 30. According to the CDC, more than 232 million vaccine doses have been administered as of April 28, meaning 30% of the total population is fully vaccinated and 43% have received at least one dose.
Millennials are driving New York City’s indoor dining scene.
Restaurant owners in the city told Bloomberg’s Kate Krader that although many diners still prefer outdoor dining, young adults are more likely to eat inside – and they’re splurging while doing so.
Nearly a year of restaurant deprivation and a decline in restaurant hopping amid restrictions is causing the cohort to shell out for high-priced items like steak, wine, and tasting menus, sending check averages and tips on the climb, restaurateurs told Krader. Tip averages increased from from 19% to 21% at Il Buco and Alimentari, she reported.
It’s all a sign of life for restaurants since February. Daily revenue across dine-in, takeout, and delivery declined in February, as did number of seated guests, per a UBS research note. Americans have continued to eat more at home amid cold weather, according to a recent Bank of America note. But both banks signaled the chances of a rebound.
March has already seen an improvement in dine-in demand, per UBS, while BofA predicts more people will flock to restaurants when restrictions get lifted and upon vaccine rollout and better weather. “There is a significant amount of pent-up demand to eat out again as consumers are tired and bored of cooking at home,” states Bank of America.
Indoor dining in NYC resumed on February 12 (it’s currently at 35% capacity), and millennials are fulfilling both banks’ forecasts. But their spending may not be enough to save the restaurant industry, Krader reported, or those who work in it.
A struggling service industry
Service workers have been hit hard during the pandemic. While food services saw some notable increases in employment in February 2021, bar and restaurant jobs are still down by around 2 million since the start of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A McKinsey report also found that, post-pandemic, workers in “declining” sectors such as food service may have to make some substantial career changes to stay afloat. In fact, according to McKinsey, more than half of them will have to find higher-paying jobs – requiring different skills – on the other side of the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, service workers have also found themselves unable to work from home, but instead in environments sometimes requiring indoor interaction with unmasked customers. A study from UCLA and UC Berkeley researchers found that fast-food workers in LA County were “especially vulnerable” to COVID-19, Insider’s Grace Dean reported.
Demographically, those workers have disproportionately been women and people of color – a continued trend of some of the most vulnerable workers being the hardest hit. In December, Eater reported that indoor dining was the “fastest growing” source for the spreading of coronavirus, according to the state.
While New York City restaurant workers are now eligible for vaccines, The City reported that many were struggling to secure a coveted slot before restaurants reopened for indoor dining.
Some restaurants in Michigan are refusing to abide by state-mandated measures to quell the spread of the coronavirus, claiming the virus is over-politicized and the science untrustworthy, the Washington Post reported.
“I don’t think it’s as bad as they’re saying it is,” David Koloski owner of the Sunrise Family Diner told the Post. “The whole thing with the coronavirus is political. I think Democrats are dug in and unwilling to move on this.”
The state is currently on lockdown, but last week Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that restaurants can reopen at 25% capacity on February 1.
Stand Up Michigan, a group of business owners who have held protests against COVID-19 restrictions, has been keeping a running list of restaurants that are defying the order to close indoor dining. Right now there are more than 60 restaurants in 33 counties defying the order.
For weeks, restaurants like the Sunrise Family Diner have remained open for indoor dining with limited enforcement of mask use or social distancing, in part because law-enforcement officials support them and some residents are willing to drive long hours just to publicize their rebuke of Whitmer, the Post reported.
Koloski told the Post that he simply can’t afford to do takeout-only orders.
“If we didn’t open, we would have shuttered. Doors closed. Out of a house, out of a job, out of a car. Me and the rest of my staff,” Koloski said.
He added: “I’m not holding a gun to anybody’s head and making them come here.”
While the state has seen a decrease in cases, 17 of the state’s hospitals are at 90% capacity.
Lansing’s Sparrow Hospital has had several ICU expansions, the Post reported. The facility normally has five to 10 free ICU beds, but 30 to 40 people who need them.
“You see that and you know that there’s a percentage of these folks, once they get COVID, some of them will die. And it doesn’t have to be that way,” Sparrow president Alan Vierling told the Post. “This isn’t like getting leukemia, where you can do everything right and get leukemia and die. With this, you have a choice.”
The overload of patients has meant that Vierling has to have an additional 90 travel nurses who work 12-hour shifts, five days a week.
Last week, the state recorded 12,535 new cases and 487 deaths compared to 16,452 new cases and 430 deaths the week before, the Detroit News reported. On Saturday, the state had 1,358 new cases.
Two months after the lockdown was enacted in November, health department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin told the Post that cases per million people decreased by 70%.
Bars and restaurants have set up tents and other temporary structures to prolong outdoor dining as temperatures drop in many parts of the US.
But Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider that enclosed outdoor spaces could be risky for customers.
“When you’re making those outdoor spaces look a lot more like indoor spaces — so if they have, all of a sudden, three-and-a-half walls, or the air flow’s not great, or there’s lots of people still at a table, then you kind of get rid of all of the potential benefits of outside,” Meyer said.
Several cities and states have put rules in place for outdoor structures, mandating that 50% of the sides open and banning totally enclosed structures. In places like New York City, enclosed tents must be treated like indoor spaces and limited to 25% capacity.
Totally enclosed tents and temporary buildings might even be riskier than dining inside a restaurant since they lack built-in ventilation systems to increase airflow, Meyer said.
As the temperature drops in many parts of the US, restaurants are coming up with creative solutions to allow for outdoor dining. But in some cases, these solutions may increase diners’ coronavirus risk.
Since the onset of the pandemic, outdoor dining has allowed restaurants and bars to stay open while offering customers a way to continue eating, drinking, and socializing in a low-risk environment. Outdoor dining has become so popular and lucrative that it’s becoming a more permanent fixture everywhere from Milwaukee to Boston.
But in the winter months, restaurants will be hard-pressed to convince diners to sit outdoors, exposed to chilly temperatures, wind, and possibly even snow.
Enter: tents, enclosed patios, and even curbside cabanas.
City and state governments across the country seem somewhat split on what types of structures are safe. In Chicago, for example, the city mandates that temporary outdoor structures must have 50% of the sides open in order to ensure air flow. New York City has the same rule, but will allow fully enclosed structures – they’ll just be regulated like indoor dining and capped at 25% capacity. Cities in Connecticut and Colorado have similar mandates.
State and local laws aside, however, infectious disease experts say this type of dining comes with clear risks that customers should take into account before dining in one of these structures.
Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine and associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, told Business Insider last month that while she applauds businesses for thinking creatively about how to prolong outdoor dining, some are going too far and essentially creating an indoor space.
“When you’re making those outdoor spaces look a lot more like indoor spaces – so if they have, all of a sudden, three-and-a-half walls, or the air flow’s not great, or there’s lots of people still at a table, then you kind of get rid of all of the potential benefits of outside,” Meyer said.
Meyer said the two keys to safe outdoor dining are the ability to physically distance and airflow. But structures like four-sided tents lack air circulation that restaurants have – businesses aren’t installing ventilation systems in a temporary curbside hut, meaning dining in an enclosed space like that could be even riskier than sitting inside at a restaurant, Meyer said.
“You don’t want air to essentially be stagnant,” Meyer said. “That’s especially true in the winter because when there’s less humidity in the air the droplets can actually disperse farther.”
Meyer suggested bars and restaurants add a fan if they’re going to have an enclosed outdoor space, or just lift a tent flap or leave a window open – anything to keep air circulating throughout the structure.
Beyond the inherent risks associated with little air flow and close proximity to other people, Meyer warned that outdoor dining structures may give people a false sense of security. Since they’re not technically inside the restaurant, diners may relax social distancing measures, move around without their masks on, or otherwise treat it as an outdoor space, even if, for all intents and purposes, it’s more like being indoors.
In many parts of the country, especially in places that experience wintry weather like New York or Chicago, restaurants have set up igloos and greenhouses that allow customers to dine, essentially, in a bubble. While those individual tents carry the same risks – namely, no ventilation – Meyer said they’re a better solution as long as you only dine with people in your household.
“Some virus particles can be aerosolized and kind of hang in the air, and they like to stick to surfaces like tables and chairs and potentially the inside of this bubble,” Meyer said. “There need to be precautions in place for a little bit of downtime between customers and good cleaning and disinfecting practices in between in order to make that safe.”
The US faces a dire COVID situation nationwide
Regardless of the precautions restaurants are taking with tents, igloos, and huts, Meyer said it’s possible dining could be shut down again soon anyway as cases continue to rise.
Robert Mujica, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget director, said during a press conference on Wednesday that bars and restaurants are the fastest-growing source of COVID infections in the state now that it’s getting colder. Indoor dining is prohibited in parts of the state that have been deemed COVID “clusters,” and Cuomo has warned that indoor dining could be shut down in New York City by Monday.
Other parts of the country are placing limits on restaurants as well. Both California and Michigan have shut down indoor dining, and Baltimore has closed all types of dining at restaurants, including outdoor service.
Last week, the CDC warned against spending time in “nonessential indoor spaces and crowded outdoor settings,” calling those spaces “a preventable risk to all participants.”
These measures amid a devastating COVID situation across the country. The US reported over 220,000 new COVID cases on Tuesday, and more than 104,000 people are currently hospitalized as a result of complications from COVID-19. The US has now seen more than 288,000 deaths since of the onset of the pandemic. It’s difficult to measure which part of the country is currently the hardest hit by the virus – as The New York Times notes, several parts of the country could be considered the biggest hot spot depending on how you measure it.