British Columbia

New COVID-19 rules will change intimate atmosphere of restaurants, expert says

New rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in restaurants could change the atmosphere of dining in, but one hospitality industry expert says there are many things restaurants can do to keep the experience enjoyable.

'It goes against the psychology of a hospitality experience, and this is going to be a real challenge'

Bartenders and servers wear masks inside Earls Kitchen and Bar on their reopening day in Vancouver on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Just a few months ago, there wasn't much thought given to sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a busy bar, going for seconds at a buffet, or mindlessly tossing the decorative pillows off a hotel bed.

You might not have considered how many people touched your menu before you, or how many other glasses were filled with the pitcher now being used to top up your water. 

Restaurants in B.C. are beginning to reopen this week under an exhaustive list of new rules that, while meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, could take away from the atmosphere we've come to expect of the hospitality industry.

"How do you do this safely without giving off the vibe that feels more like a medical facility?" said Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer in hotel and restaurant design at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.

"It goes against the psychology of a hospitality experience, and this is going to be a real challenge for hotels and restaurants and bars."

A QR code is used to access the food menu at OEB Breakfast Co. on their reopening day in Vancouver on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In B.C., tables now need to be spaced out at least two metres, dine-in must be limited to 50 per cent capacity, and some restaurants may require servers to wear masks and gloves.

For some restaurants, that limited capacity also has an impact on its bottom line.

"For the restaurant industry to really succeed and thrive and be healthy, we need to be able to take advantage of the square footages we've leased in previous years," said Craig Blize, chief operating officer of Earls.

"The restaurant industry really needs to get to 75 per cent, 100 per cent capacity but safety among our employees and our guests is the utmost concern or us right now."

Earls Kitchen and Bar reopened its Vancouver restaurant on Tuesday with spaced-out tables, staff in masks, and extra sanitization.

Darren Keane, general manager of OEB Breakfast Co., is pictured on the restaurant’s patio on their reopening day in Vancouver on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Some restaurants are holding on to the changes made during the pandemic.

OEB Breakfast Co. general manager Darren Keane said although the restaurant reopened to dine-in service on Tuesday, they'll continue to offer takeout.

Customers dining in were greeted with contactless menus with a QR codes, extra sanitizing and staff wearing masks and gloves. 

Keane said the first day open was a success.

"It's been pretty steady but not busy," he said. "It's been good."

Plexiglass barriers separate patio tables on the Bells and Whistles pub patio in Vancouver on the first day of B.C.’s Phase 2 reopening plan on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Booths, family-style meals, no mini bars

There are several things restaurants and hotels can do to make the guest's experience inviting for dine-in service, Robson said.

Hotels will likely do away with the mini bars, coffee makers, and materials that are too difficult to keep clean. 

"You'll see a lot more hard finishes," Robson told CBC's On The Coast

"But that's in style in some sense — mid century modern, very much about hard finishes. But that's going to require some change at a lot of hotels that have renovated in the past few years."

Seeing too much space within a restaurant can be jarring, she said, but having proper sight lines is important to maintaining an atmosphere. Robson expects to see the return of the high-backed booth.

"Those give you enough protection from the table next to you but they feel kind a little bit more like the restaurant experience that everybody enjoys," she said.

To reduce the amount of contact a server has at the table, some restaurants might bring pitchers and larger plates that guests can serve themselves from "family-style," she added. 

Robson, a former Vancouverite who lives in New York, said she believes Canadians will be more willing to "go with the flow" with the changes in the hospitality industry.

"A lot of my friends in the restaurant industry are very concerned that they're going to have guests that will just not want to comply with the things that are being asked of them," she said. 

"Canadians will be very understanding and accepting."