Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued 39 requirements for restaurants to reopen April 27, including a limit of 10 customers per 500 square feet. All employees are mandated to wear face coverings “at all times” and constantly disinfect and sanitize surfaces. Tables are pushed 6 feet apart.

Waffle House might be the highest-profile brand to embrace the option, noting limited dine-in service would resume at many of its 400 restaurants across the state. During the lockdown, 330 of the company’s locations remained open for takeout orders. Most of them were expected to start serving dine-in customers with Kemp’s directive.

Yet there remains widespread reluctance from operators, too. Chick-fil-A said April 23 “safe service is our top priority,” and that it planned to “take additional time to review our operations and ensure we have necessary precautions in place to protect our guests and team members before we reopen our dining rooms.” It did not reference its home state’s decision directly, only saying, “as some states begin to ease restrictions on the closure of local businesses.”



Grindhouse Killer Burgers owner Alex Brounstein told Time they had no plans to reopen Monday. “You’re talking about people putting their mouths on things in your restaurant. You now have dirty dishes going back into your kitchen. To me, it’s just completely illogical,” he said in an interview with the publication.

FOCUS Brands’ Schlotzsky’s is also electing for the side of caution.

As for why Georgia gave the green light, Gov. Kemp cited the desire for people to get back to work. The Georgia Department of Labor announced last week that 1.1. million people—about a fifth of the state’s workforce—filed for unemployment in the five weeks since the crisis began.

Dine-in service and movie screenings were among the businesses to resume Monday after other industries, like barbershops, gyms, tattoo shops, and nail salons, were allowed to welcome back customers April 24.

And all of this progressed as public health experts continue to warn of a possible spike in coronavirus cases if states reopen too quickly. Georgia has ranked in the bottom 10 of states for testing per capita. President Donald Trump expressed hesitation about the rapid nature of Gov. Kemp’s plan.

Needless to stay, Georgia’s decision is a controversial one. Texas is scheduled to follow suit Friday (at 25 percent capacity). Tennessee is also on deck this week. And operators coast to coast and everywhere in between will be watching these case studies unfold in real time.

One question these events have brought up, however, is how soon is too soon for restaurants? While every operator wants to get back to business as usual, or at least as close to it, they’re also wary of restarting before consumers are ready. Just think how difficult it was for Chipotle to climb out of its food-safety hole. Now imagine a customer gets COVID-19 while dining at a restaurant brand. Would that unfold gentler or far harsher than Chipotle’s cautionary consumer sentiment/trust tale? Nobody is sure for certain.

It’s risky business. But as some restaurants have pointed out, it’s a hazard they need to weigh or take right now to survive.

A recent CivicScience study from 44,718 responses (April 9 to April 22), said 41 percent of people would wait between one and five months before going to a restaurant post lockdown. Thirty-nine percent said under a month. Twenty percent picked six-plus months.

Sense360 ran some numbers on the question, too. Here’s what emerged. As evident, there is a pretty big divide forming.

Pollo Tropical Chicken Platter With Sides

Datassential’s latest wave of 1,000-consumer research, fielded April 17 and April 20, titled “Ready or Not,” explored this topic of timing.


1. Coronavirus & The Impact on Eating

2. Fear and Response

3. Into the Home

4. Hands Off 

5. Sheltered

6. Pent-Up Demand

7. The Operator Story

8. Making Money Move

9. Reinvention

10. Money Matters

11. The Trust Issue


Today, there remains a very inconsistent landscape of information. Some states report subsiding cases while others are evolving into new “hot spots.” The White House tossed a May 1 target into the conversation, along with a multi-step, phased approach to rebooting the economy.

While pundits caution for more testing, there are plenty of protests taking place across the nation that show a divide between playing it safe and growing weary with stay-at-home restrictions.

So how will consumers respond to reopening the economy as we go forward? And what can restaurants do to reassure them that dining in will be safe?

Let’s see where the data leads.

As talks of reopening heat up, avoidance of dining in is starting to wane a bit. There has been some movement in demographic segments, too, with significant increases in avoidance among Gen Z and Gen X, but declines among Boomers (the higher risk category);

  • Definitely avoid eating out: 61 percent (plus 2 percent since April 15; plus 41 percent since March 10)
  • Nervous but will still eat out: 24 percent (minus 1 percent since April 15; minus 15 percent since March 10)
  • Have no concerns whatsoever: (minus 1 percent since April 15; minus 26 percent since March 10)


By group:

  • Men: 57 percent
  • Women: 65 percent
  • Gen Z: 59 percent
  • Millennials: 52 percent
  • Gen X: 61 percent
  • Boomers: 71 percent
  • Married: 61 percent
  • Single: 60 percent
  • Kids: 55 percent
  • No kids: 64 percent


Here’s how it’s trended the past two weeks. As you’ll notice, this latest set mirrors the most recent one, which presented a big improvement over past levels. What that indicates is that there was an initial surge from talk of reopenings, and then a leveling out of sorts. There will likely need to be another trigger to inject it further, like Georgia having success perhaps. Or another major state loosening the reins. The same could be true on the other end of the spectrum if negative news follows.

April 15

Definitely avoid eating out

  • Men: 58 percent
  • Women: 60 percent
  • Gen Z: 44 percent
  • Millennial: 49 percent
  • Gen X: 56 percent
  • Boomer: 77 percent
  • Married: 62 percent
  • Single: 56 percent
  • Kids: 52 percent
  • No kids: 62 percent


Here’s how that looked just about a week earlier (April 10–13 versus April 15):

  • Men: 65 percent
  • Women: 71 percent
  • Gen Z: 62 percent
  • Millennial: 59 percent
  • Gen X: 66 percent
  • Boomer: 81 percent
  • Married: 72 percent
  • Single: 62 percent
  • Kids: 62 percent
  • No kids: 70 percent


The invisible worry

Uncertainty is hampering real progress. People don’t know if a drop in cases represents an imminent end to COVID-19. Or will it come back? Are you sure the person sitting next to you doesn’t have it? What about the worker behind the cash register?

On a personal level, Americans are grappling with issues completely foreign a couple of months ago. Will there be essentials at the grocery store? Is my job still viable?

To Datassential’s definition, we have anxiously waited for signs of hope or a “magic” date when we can safely reemerge into the work. But the reality is that just doesn’t exist. And it won’t, even as plans to reopen near for many markets.

“… the milestone we most looked forward to is now something that instead evokes fear,” the company said.

The safe bet is that customers approach restaurants with caution. They will vary in their risk tolerance and willingness to dine in. And each will show up with their own desires, expectations, and timelines as we seriously discuss life after COVID-19.

“Restaurants can bring some certainty back to the dining process by setting clear expectations to help diners navigate the ‘new restaurant normal,’” Datassential said. “People willing to dine in now will need very little reassurance. The more cautious ‘fence sitters,’ who will evaluate the safety of each situation, will need more coaxing, but will also represent the biggest opportunity for growth.”

Starting with the White House target.

“Wat do you think about May 1 as the date to start reopening places that have been closed in response to COVID-19?”

  • Much too soon: 44 percent
  • Slightly too soon: 28 percent
  • The right time: 21 percent
  • Slightly to late: 3 percent
  • Much too late: 4 percent


And just think, this is May 1, a full month-plus past Georgia’s decision.

Does it matter where? This is a very revealing list. Not all restaurants are the same in this battle.

“How would you feel about the following places reopening on May1?

Public parks/playgrounds, libraries

  • Open May 1: 50 percent
  • Wait longer: 50 percent


Hair/nail salons

  • Open May 1: 43 percent
  • Wait longer: 57 percent


Grocery store prepared-food areas (salad bar, hot bar)

  • Open May 1: 41 percent
  • Wait longer: 59 percent


Retail stores

  • Open May 1: 38 percent
  • Wait longer: 62 percent


Restaurant dining rooms

  • Open May 1: 30 percent
  • Wait longer: 70 percent


Gym/fitness centers

  • Open May 1: 26 percent
  • Wait longer: 74 percent


Cafeterias (schools, hospitals, offices)

  • Open May 1: 26 percent
  • Wait longer: 74 percent



  • Open May 1: 18 percent
  • Wait longer: 82 percent


Buffet-style restaurants

  • Open May 1: 16 percent
  • Wait longer: 84 percent


A consistent point

Grocery shopping remains consumers’ biggest sticking point when it comes to food during times of social distancing, Datassential said. As time has progressed, it’s really come down to two issues: a lack of variety, and getting tired of cooking. For restaurants, the good news is people seem less bothered by issues tied to eating out.

“Which of the following have been more annoying regarding eating and getting food since social distancing began?”

  • Can’t find what they want at the grocery store: 45 percent (55 percent for Boomers)
  • Long lines at stores: 31 percent
  • Not able to socialize/hang out: 28 percent
  • Lack of variety/eating same thing: 22 percent
  • Overeating/gaining weight at home: 21 percent
  • Cooking at home so much: 19 percent
  • No delivery at restaurants I want: 16 percent
  • Limited menus: 13 percent
  • Food just tastes better inside restaurants: 13 percent
  • Not enough healthy takeout options: 10 percent
  • Bad experiences with delivery: 7 percent
  • Delivery fees too expensive: 7 percent


One thing to keep an eye on is the overeating/gaining weight measure. Could the early days of post-COVID-19 life see a run on menu deals akin to what you might see in early January? In other words, restaurants might find a very willing customer in lifestyle, health-driven options that are affordable and accessible.

Pent-up demand

While there’s little question consumers will be cautious in those early reopening days, the other side of the equation is that they’ll also be itching to get out of the house and back to normal routines. Restaurants have always provided this cost-effective outlet for people.

Datassential found that more than half of diners would at least consider dining in at a restaurant right away after it reopens. Males, millennials, and households with kids were more likely to be jump the eating-out gun. It suggests the true share fight for restaurants might not be inspiration, but retention. Making sure they’re doing all the right things to inspire a repeat visit. That’s where the trust element will really develop in the upcoming weeks and months.

“How would you feel about dining in at a restaurant right away once they reopen?”

  • 41 percent: There’s no way I would consider dining in right away
  • 39 percent: Might consider dining in right away
  • 20 percent: Absolutely would dine in right away


Gen Z:

  • Absolutely: 25 percent
  • Might: 46 percent
  • No way: 30 percent



  • Absolutely: 31 percent
  • Might: 35 percent
  • No way: 34 percent


Gen X

  • Absolutely: 18 percent
  • Might: 37 percent
  • No way: 44 percent



  • Absolutely: 10 percent
  • Might: 42 percent
  • No way: 48 percent


As the days go on, this next group of data could change. Or it could stay the same. Like all COVID-19 things, it’s a bit of a mystery. But whether or not America emerges in a recession is something all restaurants should monitor as they begin to plot their menu calendars. Value might shift back to 2008 aims, and split away from what we’ve seen in recent years, which is a movement toward check building via a la carte offerings and barbell approaches that favor premium items to leverage a more willing consumer. This concept was born out of an oversaturated industry in recent years that saw traffic slide throughout the restaurant lexicon.

Brands were covering fewer transactions with higher checks, and doing so by raising prices alongside strategies to upsell (think kiosks, suggestive selling tech at the drive thru, etc.)

Right now, though, with almost half of Americans feeling May 1 is too soon to reopen businesses, it’s not surprising that consumers are most hesitant about dining in for health and safety reasons. The financial topic could surface in force later.

“If restaurants were to reopen for dining in on May 1, what would be the biggest factor preventing you from eating inside a restaurant?”

  1. 74 percent: Safety/health
  2. 14 percent: Finances
  3. 12 percent: Neither


How will this unfold?

When asked whether their first trip back to a dining room should be a quick, streamlined affair to minimize their risk of exposure to COVID-19 or a full-length dining experience, consumers were split across all demographics, Datassential said. There was one notable exception. People who indicate they “absolutely” would return to restaurants right away tend to want the entire eating experience they’ve been missing. Those who would return right away nonetheless think restaurants should speed things up to make dining out safer.

This is a positive spin for full-service restaurants, which have taken the brunt of transaction loss since COVID-19.

The NPD Group reported Monday that, in the week ending April 19, the sit-down segment saw a 72 percent decline in transactions versus a 79 percent drop the prior week. The rate of decline for casual dining improved 12 points from a decline of 77 percent in the week ending April 12 to 65 percent the week ending April 19.

Quick service, meanwhile, was down “just” 34 percent.

“Would you want a faster, streamline dining experience or a full-length dine-in experience with safety measures in place to make you feel safe and comfortable?”

  • 51 percent: Full-length dine-in experience (63 percent among those willing to dine in right away)
  • 49 percent: Faster dine-in experience


The two-way street with restaurants

Datassential said consumers expect restaurants to maintain a safe environment once reopened. People will do their part as well, and won’t be quick to abandon COVID-19 learned behaviors, like social distancing and extra sanitizing. Many said they would also avoid open and uncooked foods.

Consumers ready to dine right away put more trust in restaurants, while those who “might consider” feel safer taking extra precautions.

Simply, restaurants shouldn’t abandon their COVID-19 learned practices, either. What operational changes manifested during this time, from accelerated in-store cleaning measures to employee wellness checks, need to linger past reopening dates. And customers want to see all of it in action.

“What measures would consumers adopt to minimize risk at sit-down restaurants?”

Wash hands more frequently

  • Total: 86 percent
  • I would dine-in right away (group): 70 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away (this is the group to keep in mind when it comes to winning over or winning back customers. It’s where the biggest whitespace lies): 91 percent


Maintain distance from other diners

  • Total: 86 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 69 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 92 percent


Avoid crowded waiting areas

  • Total: 83 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 63 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 90 percent


Avoid restaurants with “open” food

  • Total: 79 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 61 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 88 percent


Disinfect/wipe down surfaces

  • Total: 66 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 53 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 75 percent


Avoid ordering raw/uncooked foods

  • Total: 64 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 52 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 71 percent


Avoid ordering shared foods

  • Total: 59 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 52 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 69 percent


Maintain distance from others in my party

  • Total: 52 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 47 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 58 percent


Wear gloves/masks to and inside restaurants

  • Total: 44 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 42 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 55 percent


Bring own utensils, straws, and pens

  • Total: 35 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 43 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 38 percent


What should your restaurant do?

This is going to be a balancing act. How can restaurants show they’re taking every safety precaution necessary yet not make the experience unsettling?

Datassential said diners appear appreciate of just about anything that keeps them away from others and minimizes exposure to COVID-19. Yet they’re resistant to tactics that get too personal, like requiring proof of wellness or taking temperatures.

“As you might expect, the most risk averse are supportive of almost anything that reduces the possibility of exposure,” Datassential said. “Because the ‘might considers’ evaluate each situation and are open to social distancing and sanitation efforts, restaurants that demonstrate extra precautions in these areas are more likely to win their business.”

“Which would you support to ensure your safety dine in at a restaurant?”

6 feet or more distance required

  • Total: 85 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 68 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 92 percent


Customers sanitize hands upon entering

  • Total: 81 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 66 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 88 percent


Customers at bar must have a seat

  • Total: 81 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 69 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 88 percent


Must wait outside if waiting for a table

  • Total: 73 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 58 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 82 percent


Seating by reservation only

  • Total: 69 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 58 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 78 percent


No physical menus

  • Total: 65 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 57 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 75 percent


Customers temperature taken upon entering

  • Total: 61 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 56 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 66 percent


Customers required to show proof of wellness

  • Total: 41 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 44 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 46 percent


What will people put up with?

Restaurants should enjoy some leeway early on, not unlike how people are waiting in line to enter grocery stores with customer limits today. While most support strategies that might inconvenience them to a degree, like pre-ordering before seating or cashless payments, they don’t rank as high as social distancing maneuvers.

“Taking extra precautions that don’t require the diner to be too inconvenienced may help to coax the more wary to start dining in sooner,” Datassential said.

“Which would you support to ensure your safety dining in at a restaurant?”

Staff member enforcing capacity at the door

  • Total: 83 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 68 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 91 percent


Pickup customers wait outside

  • Total: 77 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 60 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 86 percent


No large groups allowed

  • Total: 76 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 60 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 86 percent


Allow takeout only

  • Total: 75 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 54 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 87 percent


Seating by pre-order only

  • Total: 67 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 54 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 76 percent


Vulnerable customers allowed certain times to dine in

  • Total: 63 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 56 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 71 percent


No cash payment accepted

  • Total: 59 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 54 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 67 percent


Customers required to wear masks when not eating/drinking

  • Total: 52 percent
  • I would dine-in right away: 48 percent
  • No way I’d dine-in right away: 63 percent


What does your restaurant need to do?

When it’s time to reopen, just like before COVID-19, restaurants will start to separate themselves from the pack with top-notch operations. Customers want to see the basics. Now, beyond just thorough and frequent cleaning, people will also seek out assurance of healthy staff and steps to social distance. The extras don’t hurt, either.

“How do consumers feel about the following safety measures?”

Common areas deep cleaned daily

  • People like it: 94 percent
  • People require it: 76 percent


Surfaces sanitized after every meal

  • People like it: 94 percent
  • People require it: 76 percent


Disinfect or dispose menu each time

  • People like it: 92 percent
  • People require it: 68 percent


Sick staff need to be tested for COVID-19 before returning

  • People like it: 91 percent
  • People require it: 65 percent


6 feet or more between tables

  • People like it: 93 percent
  • People require it: 64 percent


6 feet or more in common areas

  • People like it: 99 percent
  • People require it: 63 percent


Sanitizer/wipes at every table

  • People like it: 92 percent
  • People require it: 65 percent


Staff must take temperature

  • People like it: 90 percent
  • People require it: 61 percent


Staff member at door to manage traffic

  • People like it: 91 percent
  • People require it: 57 percent


No shared condiment bottles

  • People like it: 88 percent
  • People require it: 55 percent


Double-wash dishes, glasses, and utensils

  • People like it: 89 percent
  • People require it: 52 percent


No cloth napkins used

  • People like it: 86 percent
  • People require it: 51 percent


Only sealed/wrapped utensils used

  • People like it: 89 percent
  • People require it: 49 percent


Waitstaff wear masks and gloves

  • People like it: 85 percent
  • People require it: 47 percent


Contactless payment

  • People like it: 87 percent
  • People require it: 44 percent


Only serve sealed beverages

  • People like it: 81 percent
  • People require it: 44 percent


Laid-off/furloughed employees rehired

  • People like it: 88 percent
  • People require it: 43 percent


Pre-order so food is ready when you arrive

  • People like it: 79 percent
  • People require it: 35 percent


Does it matter if you reduce your menu?

Many restaurants will take this approach as they try to restock and get staff back in order. Also, as they take the pulse of how much business they’ll truly be doing under regulatory changes.

“How do you feel about restaurants offering a reduced menu initially?”

  • I have no problem with this: 76 percent
  • I would be disappointed: 24 percent


The latest is greater among Gen Z (43 percent), singles (30 percent) and people who would ine out right away (84 percent). The first is higher among boomers (87 percent) and those unwilling to dine out right away (84 percent).

Consumer Trends, Story