Opinion: Six Months On

It’s been just over six months since the first lockdowns and the closure of many restaurants. Six months of change. Six months of little or no income. Six months of stress and uncertainty. Six months of innovation.

Back in April I wrote about a new normal (to view article, see here). At that time, restrictions were being eased a little and there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. And in June I wrote about learnings (to view article, see here).

However, after this we had a second wave of virus outbreaks, which eventually lead to Victoria being locked down and the borders between some States being closed.

So now things are looking promising again. Touch wood! The new cases of COVID-19 are now very low with all States looking at lifting restrictions. Victoria still has the tightest restrictions and at the moment, the Queensland border is still closed to most of NSW and Victoria – but that may be opened up in November.

By comparison to other countries we are doing well. Six months into the pandemic, the global figures are staggering – over 33 million cases of COVID-19 and 1 million deaths. The USA has over 7 million cases and over 200 000 deaths. The UK is undergoing a severe second wave with over 7000 cases a day at present. And countries like Italy, Spain, Iran and South Korea have been hard hit, with France going back into lockdown. And now, of course, the President of the United States himself has COVID-19.

We in Australia have fared relatively well. Despite criticism, our health authorities have managed to keep the outbreaks under control with a total of just over 27 000 cases (21 000 in Victoria) and 890 deaths (802 in Victoria) (Figures as at 3 October 2020).

COVID infection rates are continuing to fall across Australia, with Victoria, NSW and Queensland set to further ease restrictions over the next few weeks.

In Queensland, border restrictions and restrictions on outdoor dining have been relaxed – and the health authorities are confident that the state will not go back into lockdown in another outbreak. Indeed, the borders with NSW may be opened soon. Similarly, Tasmania is easing restrictions, and travel between Australia and New Zealand may soon be a reality. Even in Victoria, dining precincts are being opened and people are venturing out once again.

It is beginning to look like a social Christmas! We can start to prepare for events and get ready to welcome family and friends.

Where are we today? And what is tomorrow going to look like??

As I said back in April and June – the new normal will be different. I went to a local Thai restaurant on the weekend. The young Thai girls were all wearing full face shields, but beautifully decorated with stick on pearls. It seemed somehow normal!

Restaurants have always had a responsibility to serve safe food – free from contamination and potentially harmful bacteria. We take it for granted that when we dine out, we will not get sick – from the food. Now there is a responsibility to provide a safe environment, so guests do not get sick from the surroundings.

As I wrote last week, restaurants are a potential COVID hotspot (for article, see here). Crowded spaces are a problem. The risk of infection increases in large crowds and enclosed spaces. Social distancing is still vital. Even in the open air.

I – and every other health and hospitality professional – have been going on about social distancing. And it is still vital. It will not go away. Restaurants have a responsibility to give their guests the space to relax in relative safety. I have talked about social distancing several times in this column (see video here and article on Social Distancing and 1.5m here). It cannot be stressed enough that the best form of COVID risk minimisation is to stay 1.5 metres or more apart – even when seated.

Some of my previous predictions may not be necessary. For example, taking temperatures on entry or sitting in plastic cubicles or “cones of silence”. But others were right including the death of self-serve diners like Sizzler, which will close this November.

What we will see is more space between tables (a good thing for guests), greater attention to sanitisation (also a good thing) and an emphasis on outdoor “al fresco” dining. Research is showing that dining outside is much safer than dining inside (for article, see here).

Pre-bookings and registration of guests will also stay. And a positive sign is that restaurants are getting booked out. Reduced seating numbers are partially responsible, but diners are keen to get out and socialise again.

Costs will inevitably rise. Less guests per square metre and more expenses associated with compliance, will increase the costs of running a restaurant or café. So, prices will have to rise. The reality is that many restaurants were unprofitable before COVID, so now there will need to be a shift to better financial models.

Fine dining may well be restricted to the major hotels, where the costs of running a fine diner can be subsidised. But overall the quality of food should increase. If the public are paying more, they will expect more. One unintended consequence of stay-at-home dining over the past few months, is the level of high-quality takeaways that were, and still are, available. This has conditioned people to better quality. Already many pubs and clubs are employing highly qualified chefs, serving high-quality fine-dining meals at pub prices.

To contain costs, chef’s need to minimise the range of expensive ingredients and waste – so no doubt, we will see smaller but higher quality menus and a return to the fixed price “table d’hôte” … a return to high-quality traditional cuisines as well as new innovative comfort foods.

So, the new normal will be different. But it will also be fun and exciting. The evolution of dining continues and together we can all stay safe and dine another day.

By Jeremy Ryland

3 October 2020

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

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