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Restaurants stare at uncertain future as customers may not have the stomach to dine out



Since the second week of March, restaurants, pubs and discotheques across the world have shut down as the first signs of the Covid-19 pandemic taking hold emerged. Nearly two months later, owners are unsure when they will be able to reopen their outlets and what their business would be like once they do.

A combination of risks has made this segment of the hospitality business particularly vulnerable to the crisis, with infections feared to spread in closed, indoor spaces – which most eateries are – and through multiple points of contact, whether the food, the dishes or even furniture on an average day filled with multiple customers.

“The problem is at two levels. How do you comply with social distancing rules in restaurants, where putting a distance of say 1-2 metres between tables will be difficult, and how do you convince people that the food that they will be served is safe,” said Anurag Katriar, president of the National Restaurants Association of India (NRAI) and CEO of deGustibus that runs Mumbai’s Indigo chain of restaurants.

Nightclubs, bars and the banqueting business will be particularly affected, the NRAI president said, since these depend on large crowds.

The coronavirus disease has been established to spread in closed spaces like restaurants, with one such instance taking place in Guangzhou, China, where nine people contracted the disease from a fellow diner. Crucially, dozens of others present in the eatery at the time did not get the disease, which health authorities said was because the infections were spread only among those who were sitting within the draught of the same air conditioner as the infected person.

At least three American provincial officials – in New York, Connecticut and Atlanta – have hinted at letting restaurants expand to streets outside, which will be closed to vehicles to make more room for pedestrians and cyclists as an alternative to more risky mass transit.

“I think such a dining option is a good way out for restaurants at present, but in congested cities like Mumbai, this will be difficult,” Katriar said.

The new normal, Katriar added, will depend on how severely India is hit by the pandemic. “If India emerges with, say, 2,000 casualties, it will be very different from a situation if there are 20,000 casualties,” he said. “If the disease takes a big toll, people will be reluctant to go out to eat for a long time,” he added.

For the time being, according to the restaurateur, businesses could look at carrying out regular batch testing and disclosing the results to make customers feel safe about eating out.

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