Not Ready to Eat at a Restaurant? WSU Coronavirus Survey Says You're Not Alone


As states begin to reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, a new study indicates it might be months before people are comfortable with dining at a restaurant or staying in a hotel.

Research from Washington State University's Carson College of Business found that if stay-at-home orders were lifted, 66% would not be willing to dine-in immediately. Nearly half of those surveyed, 47%, said they plan on waiting another one to three months.

Those surveyed were even more hesitant about staying at a hotel, with a little more than 60% saying they plan to wait three to six months before doing that.

WSU researcher Dogan Gursoy said the data indicates that restaurants should consider a phased-in approach, starting out with limited-capacity seating. He noted that around 21% of those surveyed indicated they would return soon after restaurants open dining rooms.

"Over time, others will join this group of consumers -- assuming that there is not a second wave of COVID-19 infections," Gursoy said in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

Since it will be difficult to make a profit with limited capacity, Gursoy also suggested continuing a robust to-go/delivery system for the next three to six months.

When it comes to traveling, many people are hesitant to do it right now, but they are also pondering future trips and anxious to take one, said Sandy Ward, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. In the research she's seen, most people support the current restrictions and it'll be the health experts that have the most influence on their decisions.

As non-essential travel does start to pick up again, Ward said it will be important for hotels to show that they are making efforts to try to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. People checking in will be looking for employees wearing masks and hand sanitizers and wipes in the lobby. She also expects technology to ramp up to reduce points of contact, such as allowing a smartphone to open rooms.

Dana Weber, general manager at the Best Western Plus hotel near the Bellingham International Airport, agreed that adding extra safety measures while maintaining customer service is important. Some of the things they've added include revamping how they do breakfast, using order forms for pickup and delivery.

The group that operates the hotel also operates the Four Points Sheraton on Lakeway Drive, and both have instituted other measures such as closing a room for 48 hours after it's been occupied and installing barriers at the front desk.

While Best Western, Sheraton and others are open, business is down substantially with the travel restrictions. Weber said he's seen mostly essential workers the last few months or people moving in or out of Bellingham.

While it's a challenge, Weber remains optimistic about the future of hotels in Bellingham.

"Although things are tough now, I believe in this community and especially the hotels in this community," said Weber, who serves on the Bellingham Whatcom Tourism board of directors.

According to WSU's research, vacations with limited social interaction, including beaches, lakeside getaways and road trips through the countryside are the first experiences travelers are planning as stay-at-home orders are lifted.

Other key findings:

-- Visible efforts such as sanitizing tables and chairs in front of customers, hand sanitizer stations throughout restaurants, staff wearing masks and implementing social distancing are the most important safety precautions customers expect from a restaurant.

-- Casual or family-style restaurants are the first they will patronize.

-- Fifty-six percent are not willing to travel to a destination and stay at a hotel in mid-June or July.