June 19, 2020

Reopening of Restaurants a Win for Workers, but will Customers Return?

Restaurant workers sighed with relief at the President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Wednesday night but may battle to get customers to come back.

Workers in the restaurant industry sighed with relief at the president’s announcement on Wednesday night that sit-down restaurants may re-open for business. However, they still may face an uphill battle in convincing customers to come back.

Lockdown restrictions are once again being eased. Ramaphosa announced on Wednesday 17 June that more economic sectors will be opening under Alert Level 3, including personal care, hospitality, and entertainment.

Restaurants, previously allowed to operate for delivery and take-away service only, will now open for sit-in meals.


However, it is not yet clear whether customers will bite.

The announcement received mixed reactions. Opposition parties shared their opinions – DA interim leader John Steenhuisen complained that the decision came too late and EFF spokesperson Vuyani Pambo complained that it was too early.

Workers in the restaurant industry, however, shared a collective sigh of relief and celebrated the decision after being out of work for almost three months.

It is estimated that the industry employs 800 000 people, many of whom are unskilled and have limited work opportunities.

The Restaurant Association of South Africa (Rasa) has been pleading with the government to make the announcement for weeks and chief executive officer Wendy Alberts said the industry has been decimated.


Restaurants will have to operate under stringent regulations, as mentioned by the president. While these regulations are yet to be outlined, restaurants have already developed rules of operation to ensure safety for all customers.

This includes social distancing of 1.5m between all customers, operating at lower capacity, and moving tables outside where possible.

Restaurant owners are looking to examples from abroad for creative solutions, like the Dutch restaurant that recently went viral for its use of glass greenhouses around tables to ensure social distancing.

However, reopening for sit-in meals may not provide the relief restaurant owners and workers are hoping for. Even with strict protocols in place, it may be difficult to convince customers to come back.

Many South Africans, despite the lifting of regulations, are not convinced that it is safe to resume pre-lockdown activities.

This was evident in the negative response to the reopening of churches, and that scepticism is extending to restaurants.


Some South Africans have been hesitant to order any food from restaurants at all under Level 3. Convincing them to sit-in and face the risks of social activity now is likely to be an uphill battle.

The struggle to retain customers will only grow with increasing infection numbers, considering the country has not yet reached the peak of the virus.

For some customers, the virus is not the only concern. Restaurants are considered a luxury for many, reserved for socialising and special occasions. The economic hardships facing consumers leave little to no money to spend on these extramural activities.

Those who can afford it may be deterred by the safety regulations that take away from the social aspect of eating out.

According to Alberts, restaurants are not just about the food, they are the cornerstones of social life, so removing the social part may be detrimental to the industry.

Any economic activity in the restaurant sector is bound to be better than none. However, the relief restaurant workers need is unlikely to be fully delivered by these new regulations.