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The Key to Getting Diners Back Into Atlanta Restaurants: Outdoor Seating

According to Eater Atlanta’s recent COVID-19 dining out survey, people want more outside seating options

Beth McKibben is the editor and staff reporter for Eater Atlanta and has been covering food and cocktails locally and regionally for 12 years.

It’s been just over a month since restaurants were allowed to reopen, and bars across the state can follow suit on Monday, June 1. Like it or not, Georgia is officially open for business.

Two weeks ago, Eater Atlanta conducted a survey to see how readers felt about returning to dining out as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Georgia — what safety measures diners want to see in restaurants, how they feel about reduced-capacity dining rooms, and ultimately, when they’ll feel comfortable eating out again. Over the two weeks, 1,872 people responded to the survey, and a majority of those polled want to see more outdoor dining choices.

Nearly a third of respondents say that they will not return to dining in at restaurants until the CDC and health experts say it’s safe, with 15.7 percent also stating they need to see a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, 15.2 percent of respondents state they’re already dining out, citing reasons such as supporting small businesses and feeling safe at trusted and beloved restaurants.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that outdoor dining will get more people into restaurants — nearly 70 percent of those polled say they hoped to see more outdoor seating. Several people posted comments in the survey about only feeling safe eating outdoors, with one commenter stating they’ll soon be dining out, but only on patios. “We will need to see number of cases decrease significantly and restaurants give more space to diners. Our first dining experience will definitely be outside,” one respondent says.

Cities across metro Atlanta are already taking steps to help restaurants expand their outdoor seating options, including offering a temporary outdoor dining permit. These permits allow restaurants to utilize common areas, parkings spaces, and other outside areas for seating, and serve as an alternative to the dining room.

Wearing masks has become a hotly debated topic during the ongoing health crisis in America. However, 89 percent of those who responded to Eater’s survey believe all restaurant and bar staff should be required to wear masks. Some Atlanta restaurants and bars may ask patrons to also wear masks as much as possible while inside or not eating or drinking to help keep staff and other diners safe.

Georgia restaurants reopen for dine-in service must follow a set of 39 health and safety requirements. These include requiring employees to wear masks and limiting seating capacity in the dining room and on patios. Like restaurants across the state, bars must also follow 39 mandatory safety requirements in order to reopen, including screening workers for COVID-19 symptoms, limiting capacity to 25 people or 35 percent of total occupancy, and allowing parties of no more than six people.

In terms of safety measures respondents of the survey want to see in place, 78 percent hope these establishments provide hand sanitizer. Over 73 percent of respondents feel there should be clear social distancing markings at restaurants and bars, with 67.2 percent saying capacity should be reduced by at least half during the pandemic.

A handful of respondents worry about the ease of implementing these COVID-19 health and safety requirements and are concerned with the longterm economic impact these new requirements will have on restaurants and bars in Atlanta. “All of these sound great,” a respondent states. “I just wonder how they will be implemented.” Another adds, “Placing these restrictions on restaurants isn’t economically feasible in a sector that has thin profit margins.”

In terms of which groups people are most concerned with while dining out, 77 percent of respondents say they’re concerned about being around other diners — not restaurant staff. “The concerning group of people are the ones that do not take the dangers of the virus seriously,” a respondent writes. “There should be rules set by restaurants, and if a guest (or employee) should choose not to abide by the rules and potentially harm others, they should be removed from the restaurant.”

“I trust most restaurateurs and staff at better restaurants to do well. They’re used to sanitizing and cleaning after services, and understand food safety better than most consumers,” another comments. “I’m more concerned about fellow citizens/diners who aren’t taking things as seriously as my family is.”

What seems apparent from the survey results and comments provided by respondents is the decision on whether or not to dine out is complicated and based on a number of factors for each individual. Most agree they feel more comfortable and safe dining outside right now, but worry about the lasting effects the current health crisis will have on the Atlanta dining scene.

“I want to go back to restaurants and support the hospitality industry, it is just so hard to know when the right time is. I love the amazing restaurants we have here in Atlanta. Having worked previously as a server, bartender, and as hospitality PR for many years, I know how much they are hurting,” one person writes. “I think the state must provide more support and funding to Atlanta restaurants so they can make it through this complicated time. Hospitality is at the heart of our community and we want to make sure we allow these restaurants to come back safely and make it out the other side.”

Stay home if sick. Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for guidance and daily updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases.

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