Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Conor Sen

A Restaurant Meal Is Going to Become a Luxury Good

Social distancing and higher labor costs will force radical and devastating change on the industry. 

Those were the days.

Those were the days.

Photographer: Jennifer Graylock/Getty Images North America

Reopening the economy is going to be a gradual process and for at least the first couple of months likely to be closer to our current reality than the economy we had in February. Restaurants, in particular, will have to deal with two new and wrenching changes brought about by the crisis: Social-distancing requirements will reduce the number of diners allowed in at any one time, and enhanced unemployment benefits and the health hazard of being exposed to the public will make hiring low-paid workers harder. Being able to only serve a limited number of customers and having to pay more for labor might mean that dining out becomes a luxury only for the well-off.

Social distancing will pose even more of a challenge for restaurants in high-cost, dense urban areas such as New York City. Taiwan, one of the countries that has had the best response to Covid-19, has mandated that restaurant tables be spaced 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart. With New York City arguably being the epicenter of coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., a similar policy might be a sensible way to ease back into normal life. Perhaps removing half the bar stools and restricting standing crowds in drinking establishments also might be part of an effort to enforce social distancing. All of these changes will mean that even if dining demand returns to normal on Day 1 of the economy reopening, supply would be significantly curtailed at the same time that it's become harder for restaurants to make money.