Consumer Concerns About Dining Out During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Like us, food industry research firm Datassential is monitoring the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating impact on the hospitality industry closely.

The firm has released two reports over the course of seven days, “COVID-19: Coronavirus & The Impact on Eating” and “COVID-19 Report 2: Fear & Response.”

Of particular note, Datassential discovered a sharp shift in how American consumers view coronavirus over the course of just four days.

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The First Report

The firm reported on March 12—three days before some cities and states mandated closures and seating capacity reductions—that 59 percent of consumers were concerned about dining out. At that time, 20 percent indicated they planned to “definitely avoid eating out.”

People with children, those who live in urban areas, and high earners (making $100,000 or more per year) appeared the most concerned about dining out. That led Datassential to note that family dining venues in city centers could be the most heavily impacted.

More men than women indicated concern with dining out (21 percent compared to 18 percent, respectively). Among Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers (and older), Millennials were most concerned (22 percent).

The overwhelming majority of consumers indicated that they felt food prepared and eaten at home was safer than restaurant food, a belief held by 89 percent of respondents. At the time—less than a week ago—Datassential urged operators who could provide food safely and responsibly to do so.

Of course, it wasn’t just food that concerned consumers. Most consumers surveyed by Datassential for this report (78 percent) were worried about contracting coronavirus by touching door handles.

That was followed by self-serve food (77 percent), using public bathrooms in restaurants (74 percent), sitting in a crowded restaurant (69 percent), self-serve beverages (68 percent), sharing condiments (64 percent), sharing food at restaurants (63 percent), eating food with their hands (56 percent), and using the dishware, flatware and glassware at restaurants (48 percent).

Bearing in mind once again that Datassential collected this data prior to March 15, the firm found three actions consumers said would make them feel more comfortable about dining out during the coronavirus outbreak:

  • Regularly/visibly wiping down tables and other things people touched.
  • Employees visibly wearing food safety apparel.
  • Operators handing out disinfectant wipes for guests to use during visits.

The first two actions fall in line with what he had suggested at the time: communicating clearly and overtly what measures operators were taking to keep guests and team members safe during visits to their venues.

Please read this: Running List of Every State That Has Shut Down Bars and Restaurants

When asked what dining habits they were most likely to increase and decrease, this is what consumers had to say:

  • More than half of consumers (54 percent) said they would decrease the frequency with which they dined out at restaurants. Just six percent said they would increase these visits.
  • Sixteen percent of consumers also planned to order delivery less, compared to eight percent who were planning to increase ordering delivery.
  • Twelve percent planned to order food for takeout/to go less. Just seven percent indicated the opposite.
  • Eleven percent planned to reduce drive-thru visits; ten percent planned an increase.
  • The majority (69 percent) planned to cook at home more, with just seven percent planning a decrease.

Coupled with the consumer belief that food prepared at home is safer, it makes sense that most consumers planned to increase cooking at home. This led to Datassential concluding that consumers’ homes, not other restaurants, were operators’ biggest competitors, according to the data the firm had in the moment.

Of course, things changed just days later.

The Second Report

On Tuesday, March 10, Datassential asked survey respondents how familiar they felt with coronavirus. At the time, 58 percent said they were “very familiar.” On the same date, they were asked how concerned they were about personal exposure to coronavirus, with 41 percent saying they were “very concerned.”

By Saturday, March 14, both numbers had changed: 71 percent indicated they were “very familiar” with the coronavirus situation and almost half (49 percent) were “very concerned.”

Whereas 20 percent of consumers had stated they were definitely going to avoid dining out and 39 percent said they were “nervous” but would still dine out on March 10, those numbers had increased by March 14. More than a quarter of Americans (27 percent) indicated they would “definitely avoid eating out, and 41 percent said they were nervous but would still eat out.

Datassential’s findings show that nearly two-thirds of American consumers are concerned about dining out in restaurants. It makes sense given WHO and CDC information that concern about dining out has spiked among Baby Boomers/Baby Boomers-plus: older people are at higher risk of developing serious illness from COVID-19. On March 10, just 20 percent of Boomers/Boomers-plus would definitely avoid dining out. That number had jumped to 32 percent by March 14.

Members of Gen X also grew more concerned during the time between March 10 and March 14. Whereas only 20 percent of Gen X had said they would avoid dining out on Tuesday, that number had leapt to 29 percent by Saturday.

Datassential’s second report was based on information gathered on March 14. Released on St. Patrick’s Day, the report recommended that operators “eliminate as many contact points as possible,” transform into touch-free operations, and ensure all team members were using gloves and anything else that could reduce transmitting coronavirus.

The advice to remove contact points wherever possible coincides with consumer concerns about visiting bars and restaurants:

Nearly 40 percent of consumers (38 percent) are worried about touching items others have touched.

Just over a quarter of consumers (28 percent) are concerned about being near other people.

Fifteen percent are worried about how staff are preparing and handling food.

Asked about different ways to obtain food and the associated risks, self-serve salad bars at restaurants and self-serve food bars at grocery stores were seen as “too risky” (43 percent and 41 percent of respondents, respectively).

Just 17 percent perceived both drive-through and takeout as too risky a method of obtaining food. Interestingly, 20 percent of consumers indicated they felt restaurant delivery was too risky, likely due to personal contact with a delivery person and not being able to see what safety measures were being taken by staff fulfilling the orders.

Meal kits were seen as “not risky” by 38 percent of consumers, followed by takeout (28 percent), drive-through (27 percent), and restaurant delivery (26 percent). Most consumers find obtaining food “somewhat risky,” with drive-through perceived as such by 56 percent of consumers, and 55 percent considering both restaurant delivery and takeout somewhat risky.

Please read this: How to Handle Closing Your Doors Temporarily Due to Coronavirus

It remains to be seen if one final belief held by most consumers is true. According to Datassential findings released in the firm’s second coronavirus report, 62 percent of consumers believe that cooking food kills COVID-19. This may be due to a statement made by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that claims “coronaviruses need a host (animal or human) to grow in and cannot grow in food. Thorough cooking is expected to kill the virus because we know that a heat treatment of at least 30min at 60ºC is effective with SARS.”

As Datassential notes, that information may be inaccurate, incomplete or unreliable. People must act upon that statement at their own risk until the WHO, CDC and other health experts can verify it as indisputable fact.

Concerns About Clean Surfaces

Both Datassential reports show that consumers are concerned about contact points in bars and restaurants. In the first report, Datassential found that most consumers were worried about contracting COVID-19 from touching door handles.

The BBC has reported that the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) virologist Neeltje van Doremalen and colleagues have been testing SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. The virologists have been attempting to discover how long the virus can survive on various surfaces.

Before going further, understand that the virologists’ findings haven’t yet been published in a scientific journal.

The study conducted by van Doremalen and her colleagues shows that SARS-CoV-2 can survive as droplets in the air after being coughed for up to three hours. Were the droplets to be circulated in an unfiltered air conditioning system, they would only survive for a couple of hours.

SARS-CoV-2 can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard, according to NIH study. The virus can persist for up to three days on stainless steel and plastic. As any operator will understand immediately, that covers everything from flatware to door handles to most bathroom surfaces in a bar, restaurant or nightclub. The study found that copper appears to kill SARS-CoV-2 in around four hours.

Van Doremalen and the NIH have yet to determine how long the virus can survive on clothing, porous materials, and other surfaces that can be difficult to disinfect.

Research shows that the virus doesn’t do well in humid, higher-temperature environments. But the best way to “inactivate” the virus is by disinfecting a surface with either 0.5 percent hydrogen peroxide bleach, 0.1 percent sodium hypochlorite household bleach, or 62 to 71 percent alcohol.

Long-term Impact

There are several ways these Datassential findings impact operators, their teams, and guests. First, some operators have closed their doors due to government orders. Others have done so voluntarily in an abundance of caution and concern for their teams and their communities. It should also be said that some operators have ceased operations temporarily due to public backlash against remaining open against the advice of health experts.

It may feel strange and possible even inappropriate to look at a public catastrophe through the lens of public relations but it’s a valid element of this crisis for operators to consider. Even if the city or state in which they operate hasn’t mandated or recommended closures, brands that close their doors temporarily in the interest of public health and safety may be perceived more favorably than those that remain defiant and open for dine-in service. That perception will play a crucial role when bars, restaurants and nightclubs that have been ordered to close can reopen.

As of March 16, remaining open for dine-in service or as a drinking establishment flies in the face of federal recommendations to avoid gatherings of ten or more people. News outlets, popular websites and social media channels have reported on people gathering in large groups and shown the backlash they’re receiving.

Please read this: Hospitality Professionals, Please Don't Make Hasty Decisions

At the very least, this Datassential information shows how quickly consumers changed course on the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s unclear if the hospitality industry will return to “normal” or a semblance of normalcy when bans and quarantines are lifted. These reports show that there may be lasting damage done to consumer perception of restaurant food safety that the industry will have to overcome.

The NIH study focused on how long SARS-CoV-2 and by extention COVID-19 and cited in this article has not been published in a scientific journal. Bar & Restaurant, Nightclub & Bar Show and Questex cannot, therefore, guarantee the accuracy, reliability or completeness of the information shared in this article. Proceed at your own risk.

Resources

“COVID-19: Coronavirus & The Impact on Eating.” Datassential. March 12, 2020.

“COVID-19 Report 2: Fear & Response.” Datassential. March 17, 2020.

Gray, Richard. “Covid-19: How long does the coronavirus last on surfaces?” The BBC. March 17, 2020.

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