We sat down to eat at a restaurant after 13 weeks of lockdown – this is what it was like

South Africans have been deprived of a sit-down meal at their favourite restaurant for almost three months – so you would be forgiven for thinking that a dining experience today, under the new ‘advanced lockdown level 3’ would be an alien and unusual experience.

In reality though, not much has changed for diners post a hard lockdown, except for a few additional tweaks to comply with the new safety rules.

Since Monday (29 June) gazetted directives from the Department of Tourism have allowed restaurants in South Africa to allow sit-down dining again, as long as they adhere to strict social distancing protocols and sanitisation directives.

Restaurants had been under lockdown since the 27 March, only being allowed to open for delivery under lockdown level 4 in May.

For many restaurant owners, having to close their doors for three months, this has meant permanent closure of their business and livelihood, while many have survived on providing deliveries.

So, it was in this strained environment that we donned our face masks and took a lunch break at our local Doppio Zero to relive the experience of dining out first-hand.

The biggest point of contention under the current rules is that restaurants may not sell alcohol to sit-down patrons. The manager of the restaurant explained to us that margins on food sales are around 4%, while alcohol sales bring a much larger return.

With restaurants under such severe pressure, removing such a key source of revenue makes operating impossible for some.

The rules around alcohol sales are strict – and even when ordering something like a steelworks (cola tonic, ginger ale, soda water and bitters) – the tiny percentage of alcohol contained in the bitters makes it a no-go. We tried.

According to the manager, the restaurant is currently operating at relatively normal levels, with foot traffic at around the same levels seen in the weeks before lockdown – though it remains at 30% capacity.

Since opening for sit-downs on Monday the restaurant has recorded, as is the protocol under the new rules, around 780 dining customers.

A big problem, the manager noted, is menu availability and menu planning, due to massive supply chain disruption and the uncertainty that persists.

Some menu items may not be available simply because suppliers are not running at full capacity, or may be limited due to slowdowns in their own supply chain.

That uncertainty is set to continue for some time as the number of Covid-19 infections in provinces like Gauteng continues to climb towards peak levels – with talk of a possible return to tighter lockdown restrictions on the lips of politicians.

However, the manager assured us that restaurants are open for business.

Large notices let you know what you’re in for

Social distancing

A key part of the new regulations is social distancing. Restaurants need to ensure that there is enough space between customers and waiting staff and reduce any point of physical contact. As per the regulations, restaurants should:

  • Ensure that customers or guests queue at least one and a half meters apart behind each other or sideways;
  • Where possible and for instance while taking orders, waiting staff must stand at least a meter from tables.

During our experience, as we entered the restaurant, we were greeted and led to our table (after sanitising at the door), never once coming into any close contact with the waiter. Our table was separated from others by a large pot plant.

Social distancing markings are there to maintain order

 

Plants are used to segment the open spaces to ensure that foot traffic is controlled

 

Waiters and baristas do not crowd sales points or work stations

While there were several patrons dining inside the restaurant, it was busier outside. However, all were seated at a safe distance apart.

We ordered our food without fuss, apart from some unclear communication as a result of muffled speech behind masks, much to our awkward amusement.


Sanitisation

Sanitisation is a big part of allowing restaurants to re-open.

As per the regulations, customers should have access to hand sanitiser before entering the premises, and the tables need to be sanitised after each sit-down.

Additionally:

  • Where possible, tablecloths should be removed from tables. Only essential items such as salt and pepper should remain on tables and be sanitised after each guest;
  • Menus must be replaced with non-touch options or sanitised after each use.

A sanitisation station was set up at the entrance.

The table we sat at was bare. Where specials, salt and pepper and placemats once stood, now only a laminated notice was placed, informing us that the table was sanitised.

The menus we were given were also laminated for easy cleaning, and our waiter graciously provided sanitiser upon request.

Laminated menus are easy to wipe down and clean for the next set of customers

In terms of clientele, the manager informed us that most of the people who come for a sit-down meal fall into one of two categories: they either don’t care and begrudgingly play along with wearing masks and being sanitised – or they are extremely hygiene-conscious and fuss over sanitisation.

While the restaurant adheres to all regulations, he said that the experience can be as fussy as diners want, with staff on-hand to ensure everything is as clean as patrons like.

We could be sanitised on request

Screening and record-keeping

One of the new features of dining out in a lockdown scenario is doling out your personal information. As per the regulations:

  • Sit-down restaurants must conduct a screening questionnaire and take precautionary measures to protect the person and other persons on the premises.

As we sat down, we were provided with a ‘guest register’ to detail our name, ID number, contact number and a quick question on whether we were showing any symptoms of Covid-19.

These details are necessary for the government to conduct tracking and tracing procedures following a breakout of the virus in any given area.


Conclusion

Aside from a few novelties – such as being extremely conscious of our spacing, wearing masks and writing down details – our dining experience was wonderfully normal.

The service levels we received were almost better than anything that we experienced before, with waiting staff being more attentive to our needs, and reassurances from the manager moved beyond the “is everything okay here?” that typically gets delivered while doing the rounds.

The overall experience was really great, and we’d happily go out to dine again at any establishment that holds the same levels of compliance to safety and hygiene.


Read: These are the official advanced level 3 lockdown changes for South Africa – including unusual rules for sit-down restaurants

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We sat down to eat at a restaurant after 13 weeks of lockdown – this is what it was like