COVID-19 has not gone away, but Americans are tired of the quarantine lifestyle. As early as mid-April, researchers at the University of Maryland found, based on mobile phone tracking software, that many people had begun to venture out, despite stay-at-home orders still being in place.
If quarantine fatigue was setting in months ago, the broader reopening of the economy that is currently underway may cause more people to let down their guard. After all, nobody finds a face mask to be comfortable in 90-degree weather.
COVID-19 fatigue could impact many industries, including and especially restaurants, which should begin considering how they can continue providing a safe environment to diners—even as these customers lose their focus on wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and abiding by other safety measures.
No restaurant wants to earn the distinction as the place where an outbreak begins, forcing public health authorities to intervene. That is a business-killing scenario. Deluxe Corporation, which provides PPE and other COVID-19 safety solutions to restaurants and other businesses, has found that many of its restaurant clients are very concerned about the possibility of another shutdown. Many would not survive another disruption to their business, and they are looking for ways to manage risk and be part of the solution. They want to do their civic duty by protecting public health and enabling the economy to remain open.
COVID-19 risk mitigation is here to stay
Everybody hopes one of the many vaccines under development will emerge as a silver bullet for COVID-19, but there is no guarantee that the virus will be eradicated. A more likely scenario is that a vaccine will enable governments to manage the virus more effectively, reducing—but not eliminating—infections.
Consider grocery stores, for example. Will cashiers want the plexiglass shield removed after COVID-19 goes away? Or will they prefer to be protected from airborne germs that spread the flu and other sicknesses? The latter seems increasingly likely. Similarly, diners who have grown accustomed to a certain level of protection will expect restaurants to continue abiding by elevated standards of service. It makes them feel at ease.
Maintaining enhanced safety procedures could be especially popular in densely populated cities where lifestyles make transmission especially problematic. Restaurants that invest in technologies that help them reduce the likelihood of infections—even after COVID-19 wanes—are likely to see benefits to their brand equity and bottom line.
Enhanced safety can be a win-win
It is easy to view enhanced safety measures as a seemingly unending strain on the bottom line, exacerbated by unprecedented financial uncertainty. However, diners and their dollars will gravitate toward establishments that invest in technology that offers peace of mind. Some of these advancements are truly cutting edge, but others have been around for a while and are finding support in an industry suddenly forced to focused on public health. Below are five risk areas and the mitigation technologies that can help to solve them.
Density. Although it has become part of their job in recent weeks, restaurant managers would rather not spend their shifts playing a guessing game of whether diners are complying with social distancing requirements. There are emerging technologies that utilize sensors and 3D perception software to provide this service, sending real-time updates on overcrowding so businesses can make faster, better-informed decisions. In urban settings, this technology could help automate crowd management. One can imagine a “traffic sign” outside a restaurant indicating when it is okay for the next person to enter—fulfilling a similar function as the Target employees many of us have seen counting people entering and leaving the store. Versions of this density-sensing technology are already used in some airports. Time will tell whether it will gain widespread traction in smaller venues like restaurants.
Super spreaders. Next to strict adherence to social distancing measures and the use of PPE, identifying potential sources of exposure is one of the most effective tools in the fight against spreading viral illnesses. Doing so without invasive temperature checks, however, is more challenging. Restaurants that can discreetly single out unhealthy diners could avoid becoming the source of an outbreak while dodging the ire of customers who have tired of getting scanned for a fever. Infrared-enabled wall mirrors are one potential technology that companies like Deluxe are evaluating closely. This elegant solution would fit in with the décor of a restaurant while immediately alerting management if it detects somebody likely to be feverish. Restaurant employees would receive a private alert so they can quietly ask the diner to leave.
Server interactions. Reducing the number of human interactions automatically mitigates the potential spread of COVID-19 and all viral infections. Ordering from a “kiosk” located at each table is a tried-and-true method of taking food orders. Many airports have successfully implemented this solution, enabling diners to simply sit down, place their order on a tablet and pay without ever seeing a server. The same function could easily be integrated into a restaurant’s mobile app, enabling patrons to place an order from their phone and indicate that they are in the restaurant. Many diners would have complained about this level of automation pre-COVID-19, but people are eager to return to some level of normalcy and surveys consistently demonstrate that concern about the virus remains high. The restaurants that respond with a commensurate level of precautions will earn the trust of customers.
Food preparation. Has the moment for automated food prep arrived? The public health benefits may accelerate this conversation. One area where one might see traction is in the so-called “ghost kitchens” that are popping up in urban areas to fulfill online orders. These restaurants do not have a public persona to live up to, so they can serve as the fulfillment centers for several different restaurant brands. A “virtual” hamburger joint, for example, might use a robot to flip burgers, reducing the chance of contaminating food while increasing the speed of food production and reducing staffing costs.
Whether COVID-19 is a distant memory in a year or continues to require careful management, technology is poised to play a more central role in how restaurants—and many other businesses—are managed. If 2020 has taught the restaurant industry anything, it is that upfront investments in technology—from online POS systems to contactless payment options— aid off. As the economy reopens and some semblance of normalcy returns, now is the time for restaurants to think about their game plan for the next disruption. Even if that day never comes, health-conscious customers will likely reward you for it.
Tom Riccio is the president of Promotional Solutions at Deluxe. Promotional Solutions provides a range of products to help restaurants and other businesses manage their COVID-19 response, from floor decals that help people maintain proper spacing to signage that tells passersby a restaurant is open – and more.