Restaurants Learned the Wrong Pandemic Lessons

If you want a sign that Americans are done with the pandemic, you could rummage around for a poll. Such as this one, which suggests that 70 percent of the country thinks it’s time to “get on with our lives.” Or this, in which even more people say they’re burned-out by COVID-19. Or this. Or this. But really, here’s all you need to do: Go look inside your favorite restaurant.

Yes, the coronavirus is still killing nearly 2,000 people a day, and another variant is more a question of when than if. But the post-Omicron sigh of relief has been a godsend for the country’s beleaguered bars and restaurants. By some measures, Americans appear to be more comfortable eating out now than at any other time since March 2020. At various points in the past two weeks, reservations on OpenTable have outpaced even pre-pandemic levels. Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, perhaps the country’s most famous fine-dining spot, announced last week that it would finally reopen its dining room after two years of hypercautiousness. At the same moment, blue cities such as New York and Chicago, among the last holdouts for widespread safety restrictions, are even dropping their vaccine requirements to dine out.

All of this makes the present a pivotal transition moment for restaurants. Beyond merely struggling to survive, many spots can actually start gearing up for the future and considering what sort of COVID measures and spur-of-the-moment tweaks should stick around for the long haul. On the whole, the restaurant business does seem to have learned a few lessons from all these months of pandemic life. But the problem is that many of these lessons are precisely the wrong ones.

The paradox of eating out during the pandemic is that everything that makes indoor dining fun is also what makes it risky. Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech, laid out the challenges for me: “People cannot be masked,” she said. “They’re sitting there for a long time. It’s crowded. Everyone goes there to talk.” All this nibbling, laughing, and sneezing whips up aerosolized particles of the virus that can linger in the air—turning restaurants into COVID hot spots.

For a while, we’ve known that some straightforward air-quality improvements are plainly the best way to tamp down on some of the risk. Under typical building codes, restaurants have about the same indoor-air standards as other buildings—with more exhaust hoods in the kitchen to handle the smells and fumes. These codes aren’t designed with viruses in mind, and anyway, HVAC systems are rarely monitored to ensure that they’re working as advertised. At one Guangzhou, China, restaurant, an AC unit slingshotted the virus between diners sitting 15 feet apart.

Joseph Allen, the director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program, told me that in a perfect world, all restaurants would get regular tune-ups to ensure that their HVAC systems are working properly to swap out, dilute, and filter the air. After that, “you want to maximize the amount of outdoor air coming in,” Allen said. Opening some doors and windows helps, but the best play is to have your HVAC setup pump in even more fresh air while a filter (ideally rated MERV-13 or better!) strips away lots of menacing particles.

In some cases, HVAC upgrades are expensive, logistically tough, or just plain time-consuming. Clive Samuels, the president of the HVAC company CoolSys Energy Design, told me that the full ventilation changes that would be ideal for restaurants can run up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, even before you factor in the higher energy costs. But many restaurants don’t need a full overhaul to make a difference, Allen said. Beyond smaller-scale routine tune-ups, restaurants could dot their space with portable HEPA filters, which can retail for less than $100. William Bahnfleth, an architectural engineer at Penn State, envisions one at every table, “like a centerpiece arrangement,” he told me. Meanwhile, new restaurants could design their space keeping ventilation in mind in a way that they simply weren’t before the pandemic. Most restaurants have just one spot in the ceiling where air cycles out, but building in more returns and exits would help stop bad air from spreading around. In larger dining rooms, a matrix of virus-killing UV lights could hang from the ceiling, Bahnfleth said, to clean any remaining stale air. (He has one in his office at Penn State.)

None of these tweaks would completely pandemic-proof a restaurant. If you’re crammed into a bar and have to go hoarse just to mingle with your friend two feet away, no level of ventilation can zap the virus right out of your mouth before it has the chance to do some damage. But a swirl of indoor-air changes “can greatly reduce transmission,” Allen said. “You’re eliminating the potential for super-spreading events: If you have good ventilation, one person in the corner of your restaurant can’t infect someone on the other side of the room.”

Plenty of engineers and public-health experts have been shouting about this for years, because a well-ventilated space isn’t just helpful for COVID purposes; it can also tamp down on other respiratory illnesses such as flu, and potentially even infections from E. coli and staph. Unfortunately, restaurants, just like pretty much every other institution in America, don’t seem to be going all in on ventilation on any sort of meaningful scale. “There’s been lots of discussion and not a lot of action,” Samuels said. Mike Tith, the executive vice president of Sanalife, a company that helps New England restaurants improve their ventilation, was only slightly more optimistic. He estimated that the percentage of businesses in the region that have put in air purifiers is somewhere in the “low double digits.”

Of course exceptions exist, particularly in left-leaning areas full of people who are concerned about the pandemic. Bluestone Lane, a coffee chain with $17 “rainbow bowls,” has installed disinfecting UV lamps in its stores, while Market Steer Steakhouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has portable HEPA filters in each of its outdoor-dining domes. One restaurant nestled against the California coast could be in the running for America’s best-ventilated restaurant: It has a revamped HVAC system, 10 standing HEPA purifiers, and 18 tabletop air cleaners. But on the whole, restaurants around the country have largely stuck with pandemic tweaks that are pointless or even counterproductive.

On the beneficial side, in terms of public health, takeout and delivery are so big now that even $30-per-entree joints are offering these options, and some new restaurants are being designed around them, David Henkes, a restaurant-industry analyst at the firm Technomic, told me. “You see a lot more restaurants putting in takeout windows or dedicated areas where a delivery driver or a consumer has a more seamless way to pick up,” he said. Less helpful: You’ll still find plexiglass snaking through dining rooms, even though it’s actively harmful to ventilation efforts. Instead of air purifiers, we have hygiene theater: Some of the outdated cleaning practices from the Purell-your-mail phase of the pandemic still haven’t gone away, Henkes said. The latest operating guide for businesses from the National Restaurant Association, the industry lobbying group, has a lot to say about ventilation, but it also recommends sticking to “contactless payment options” and “touchless hand-sanitizing solutions.”

In the long term, what seems poised to linger are changes that shore up the bottom line for restaurant owners rather than the safety of the actual dining experience. Expect to find fewer menu items, high prices, and noticeably fewer cooks, hosts, and waiters. Pandemic measures intended to minimize interactions between customers and staff seem to be sticking around not because of the pandemic, but because they can be used to cut down on costs. QR-code menus won’t save you from getting COVID, but (sorry!) they’re here to stay, according to a survey from the National Restaurant Association. If everyone wants the ricotta toast, restaurateurs can now hike the price in real time, and just wipe the item off the online menu when they’re all out. In fast-food and fast-casual restaurants, you’ll find a lot more touch-screen kiosks to take your order and a push to order on an app. “The once ‘high touch’ industry with a lot of staff and customer contact is moving to ‘high tech,’” Peter Nyheim, a restaurant consultant, said in an email.

Of course restaurants are twisting “safety” measures into cost-saving ones: After all, this is an industry that has lost 90,000 businesses to the pandemic, while many more are still trying to fully recoup their losses. Restaurants operate with razor-thin profit margins in normal times, so they’re built to eke their way into the black, not reinvent themselves wholesale. A small mom-and-pop might be able to afford 10 tabletop air purifiers, sure, but the incentives to invest in more long-term protective measures beyond what’s either mandated or profitable for the most part simply aren’t there. Stephani Robson, an emeritus Cornell professor who studies the restaurant industry, told me that the pandemic’s biggest lesson for restaurants has been “Be lean.” So far, that very much seems to be what restaurants are doing.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the pandemic has sprouted a garden’s worth of changes in the restaurant business. But this return to whatever “normal” is now hasn’t brought out many improvements that would make restaurants safer—against the inevitable next COVID variant, against a future virus that might strike down the line, against everything. Restaurants could be making better decisions, but so could the rest of us. At every turn, Americans have failed to grasp just how much indoor air matters for this pandemic. HEPA filters would be in every restaurant already if that’s what customers truly wanted, or if governments required them. “It’s business as usual until national codes dictate that you have to have HEPA filters, that you’ve got to make these changes,” Samuels, the HVAC-company president, said.

The quicker we move away from COVID’s crisis phase, the less appetite restaurants—and grocery stores, offices, convention centers, and all other indoor spaces—will have to make the fundamental changes that are necessary to help stop people from getting sick. Tith, of Sanalife, said that businesses already seem to be putting ventilation upgrades “on the back burner” now that Omicron is fading away. So the cycle will start anew: At some point, the virus will take a turn for the worse, and the country will again be unprepared for it. If there was ever a time for America to show that it’s learned something from such a long battle with the pandemic, it would be now.


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