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How Fast Food and Quick Service Restaurants Are Reacting to New CDC Recommendations

Restaurant owners gear up for a busy summer of outdoor dining with new CDC recommendations for vaccinated people.

The CDC published new recommendations on Tuesday for those vaccinated and unvaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, mostly as it relates to which activities are safe to do with and without a mask. These new recommendations are particularly interesting for fast food and quick service restaurants who, despite mostly closing indoor dining in the early days of the pandemic, still had record sales years in 2020.

The new recommendations state that fully vaccinated people can now:

  • Gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without masks or social distancing 
  • Gather indoors with unvaccinated people without masks or social distancing (unless someone has an underlying health condition)
  • Conduct outdoor activities such as walking, running and biking without wearing a mask or distancing
  • Dine at an outdoor restaurant with people from multiple households without wearing a mask or distancing

It’s this last change that is music to restaurant owners’ ears. Previous recommendations asked customers to wear masks whenever they were not at a table. Some states also prohibited indoor dining completely through most of the pandemic, and other restaurants decided to close indoor dining on their own to save costs.

The official word from the CDC is likely to accelerate re-openings and ease patron’s worries about potential health effects of eating out.

Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech, told The New York Times, “Scientifically the vaccines are good enough that it’s highly unlikely that someone who’s vaccinated is going to be exposed to enough virus outdoors to have a breakthrough infection.”

As restrictions ease, some quick service and fast food brands are preparing to welcome customers back into the dining room. Others are taking a different approach.

Dunkin’ Donuts has already re-opened 2,600 dining rooms nationwide with plans to open thousands more in the coming weeks. It’s one of the first fast-food chains to do so.

Dunkin’ franchisee Jim Cain said in a recent press release, “As we continue to see restrictions loosen, and our dining rooms reopen, you can feel that spark of energy from our restaurant team members and guests fill the restaurants.”

Other chains aren’t as focused on in-house dining but on alternative ways to support the shift in consumer habits. KFC, for example, is testing out pick-up cubbies that will allow customers to order ahead and pick up on-site. Burger King is designing completely new restaurant formats with smaller dining rooms and a bigger emphasis on the drive-thru.

With the dramatic success of drive-thrus in 2020, some quick-service brands that are mostly dine-in or in-house pick-up are jumping on the bandwagon. Sweetgreen, Shake Shack and Chipotle are just a few with plans to add drive-thru lanes and expand existing ones.

While the future of in-house dining is up in the air, these new CDC recommendations are a positive omen for restaurant owners heading into the summer months.