Restaurant Brands International makes the announcement and lays out its plan.

By Tim Nelson
Updated May 13, 2020
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By now, certain parts of the US already have or are on the verge of reopening. While these state and city-level decisions have been welcomed by some in dire need of haircuts, othrs fear that moving too quickly could mean the worst of the pandemic is yet to come.

Well, one way or another, we can now look to the crowdedness of Burger King and Popeyes locations as a rough indicator of how comfortable certain parts of the country are with a reopened economy.

This week, Restaurant Brands International, parent company for Burger King, Popeyes, and Tim Hortons, announced that it would reopen nearly 1,000 of its dining rooms in parts of North America where such reopenings are allowed. States like Georgia and Texas were among the first to gradually allow a return to in-restaurant dining, with Indiana, Arizona, Arkansas, and South Carolina among those allowing some return to restaurants this week.

Naturally, state limits on restaurant capacity (often capped at 50 percent occupancy, plus varying limits on party sizes) and continued enforcement of social distancing practices will shape how BK, Tim Hortons, and Popeyes serve their customers, as detailed in an “Open Letter” from RBI CEO José Cil.

In addition to existing measures like acrylic shields and contactless service “at most of our restaurants” carried over from the takeout-only period, Cil’s letter adds that a ‘safe distance’ rule will be applied in dining rooms “whether communities require it or not,” aided by “beautiful tabletop signage” to indicate where customers can safely sit. Furthermore, self-serve soda fountains will be turned off, dining surfaces and chairs will be sanitized after use, and hand sanitizer will be made available to customers.

While the hope is that these precautions can put customers’ minds at ease, whether or not any of them feel comfortable enough to show up may be another story entirely. In a joint NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist national poll conducted in late April, 80 percent of respondents viewed reopening restaurants for dining as a “bad idea”, compared to only 19 percent who felt it was a good idea. Though it’s possible public opinion has shifted now that the reopenings have actually begun, America certainly isn’t universal in its enthusiasm for the return of dine-in restaurants.

The good news for fast food chains is that their business wouldn’t seem to depend on dining in, at least if the varied reaction to the reopenings is any indication. While Waffle House is back in business in Georgia, Chick-fil-A has yet to reopen its dining rooms.

So between takeout, drive-thru, and the recent expansion of delivery, it’s not necessary to eat at a Burger King unless one really, truly wants to. How eaters ultimately weigh concerns for their health against the desire to eat a Whopper in a specific place remains to be seen.