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A cafe worker in France wears a mask. Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images

Some Restaurants Will Use Shower Curtains and Mannequins for Social Distancing

Restaurants are still trying to figure out what being 'COVID-19 safe' is going to look like, or if it's even possible. And they're getting creative.
May 13, 2020, 8:14pm

On Sunday, the solo-dining experience Bord för en (Table for One), allowed its first guest to walk into the middle of a Swedish field and take the only seat available. The restaurant—if that's the right word for a single outdoor table—was designed to allow each customer to enjoy the ultimate socially distant meal, one that doesn't require them to interact with another person at any point during the evening. There is no host, no waitstaff, and all three courses inch their way to the table on a rope-and-pulley system that the owners operate from their kitchen.

"Of course, you should really be careful traveling in these times. But if you are on the road or have an urgent cause in the region of Wermland, you do need to eat," the restaurant's website explains. "And since most other Covid-19 safe places are drive-ins, come to us instead for some fresh air and delicious food out in the open."

That's an excellent option for anyone who makes it to western Sweden later this summer, but restaurants in the U.S. are still trying to figure out what 'COVID-19 safe' is going to look like, or even if it's possible. State governors are slowly easing out of stay-at-home orders, which means that restaurants will no longer be restricted to carry-out or delivery orders only—but it also means that owners and managers will have to contend with new challenges like decreased seating capacities, tables positioned at least six feet apart, and trying to make already anxious customers feel safe and comfortable.

At Twisted Citrus, a breakfast and brunch joint in North Canton, Ohio, its reopening plan includes taking employees' temperatures before they clock in for work, installing hand sanitizing stations, and, more uniquely, hanging clear shower curtain liners between the tables. "I don't know if I'm going to open to a full house or to crickets," co-owner Kim Shapiro said. "I don't really know what the appetite is for the customers who will come back to visit us."

The restaurant has cut its seating capacity from 80 down to 55, and the shower curtains allow the tables to be less than six feet from each other; Governor Mike DeWine is giving restaurants the choice of spacing or using a physical barrier. When Shapiro shared the photos on Facebook, the response was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a combination of "Great job" and "This is gross." In the comments, Shapiro admitted that there's "no requirement for barriers to be 'cleanable'," but that restaurant staffers would be taking the shower curtains down at the end of each day, putting them in the dishwasher, and treating them with a "COVID sanitizer."

"We are looking into ways to clean them throughout the shift, possible with UV lights or other options; it is a very fluid situation," she wrote. "It would be difficult to be accidentally touched by them."

Michelin-starred chef Dante Boccuzzi may not open all 12 of his Cleveland-area restaurants right on May 21, when the state officially allows restaurants to resume their dine-in service. But when his spots do start welcoming customers, they'll be equipped with Plexiglas dividers that he's designed to put between tables. “My plan is to create, basically, a dining cubicle,” he told Cleveland.com. “It’s not a foolproof safety measure, but I think it’s more for comfort. This way people can sit down in their own cubicle and relax, and they don’t need to worry about a guy sneezing even if he’s six feet away.”

Putting some form of divider around each table seems to be a common solution, and it can be as simple as Twisted Citrus' dishwasher-safe shower curtains or the DIY-versions that the owner of Little Greek Fresh Grill in Winter Garden, Florida made out of repurposed clothing racks. On the other end of the flex-spectrum, Roberto Zanti dropped $10,000 to have 17 portable wood-and-Plexiglas dividers made for his St. Louis restaurant, Roberto's Trattoria. "After the virus is gone, I might keep them," he said. "They look that good."

Meanwhile, restaurants in northern Virginia will only be allowed to resume outdoor or patio dining on May 29, and they'll have to ensure that their seating capacity remains below 50 percent of the maximum. Empty seats don't really vibe with the aesthetic of the state's only Michelin-starred restaurant, The Inn at Little Washington, so it plans to fill its dining room with mannequins dressed in circa-1940s attire. The waitstaff will also be asked to, um, fill the mannequins' wine glasses and have cheerful one-sided conversations with them. According to Washingtonian, chef Patrick O'Connell has also created his own masks, which have been printed with Marilyn Monroe's smile or George Washington's chin.

But because this year has decided to be difficult in every possible way, even mannequins can come with their own set of problems. The owner of the Continental Cafe in Brisbane, Australia picked up a neighboring hairdresser's discarded mannequin heads and put them around the tables in his restaurant, thinking that they'd make the place look like it wasn't totally empty, or that takeout customers would enjoy the silliness, or both.

Instead, someone called the cops and reported them as an illegal social gathering. "The officer stopped outside and had the lights on, I approached the car and was a bit hesitant," Beau Downs told 10 News First. "I assured him we weren't doing anything wrong. They had a laugh and saw the funny side."

On second thought, maybe that one seat in a Swedish field is the right way to go.