When Yakima County entered modified Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan and restaurants could offer outdoor dining, The Lab was ready.

Owners of The Lab, which was open just a month before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Yakima Valley, had been working with the Yakima Health District and the Yakima County Development Association on a safety plan that would meet social distancing and sanitation requirements.

But owner Shawn Niles aimed to do more than the bare minimum: The tables are more than 6 feet apart. They have masks on hand for anyone without one. They mapped out a layout in and out of the store to minimize close physical contact between customers and staff as much as possible.

“We want everyone to know we take safety seriously,” Niles said.

Still, that hasn’t been enough for customers to rush back to The Lab when it began offering outdoor seating earlier this month. Even with just a handful of tables, The Lab has never been full at any given time, Niles said. During one lunch service last week, only three customers opted to eat at the restaurant. Most of the restaurant’s sales are still takeout orders.

“I think people are still very nervous about coming out,” Niles said.

Indeed, restaurants and customers have shown extreme caution in ramping up even outdoor dining. Some Yakima Valley restaurants have been slow in offering outdoor dining, and some have decided to opt out for now and continue offering takeout.

Kesong Wang, owner of Kyoto and Captain Crab and Ramen, said he’s waiting for when the county enters Phase 2 and restaurants can resume indoor dining at 50% capacity.

Captain Crab and Ramen, a Cajun and ramen restaurant is at The Orchards shopping center at 72nd Avenue and Tieton Drive, doesn’t have any outdoor dining space.

Kyoto, in a shopping center just west of 24th and Washington avenues, does have an outdoor patio. Still, Wang said customers would be missing out on a vital part of the restaurant’s experience: having a chef cook in front of them on a hibachi grill.

He is also concerned about the impact of dust and dirt from construction activity nearby.

“I want the customers feeling like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re taking care of them,’” he said.

While takeout sales have been far below what they were before COVID-19, it’s enough to cover his costs.

“It’s only about half (of sales), but it’s still OK,” he said.

Research

While some consumers are warming up to restaurant dining, most consumers still aren’t ready to do so, according to ongoing research from Washington State University’s hospitality and business management school.

Researchers have been surveying consumers every few weeks since early May about their comfort level in returning to restaurants and hotels.

Out of 811 consumers surveyed nationwide between June 15-20, about 26% had eaten out at least once in the previous week. Just 6.5% said they had more than one meal out.

And overall, about 55.1% said they were very unlikely or unlikely to dine out immediately.

WSU recently survey 810 consumers during the first full week of July to update the study. The complete data report was not available before publication, but Dogan Gursoy, a WSU hospitality business management professor who was involved with the research, provided several statistics.

The most notable statistic is that 21.7% of those surveyed said they would be comfortable dining in a restaurant when a vaccine is available. That is a noteworthy jump from 14.8% from about four weeks ago.

Also, the percentage of consumers saying they wanted other customers to wear masks increased from 47% to 54%.

Rising case counts nationwide and publicized incidents of customers acting belligerently when asked to wear a mask have made people uneasy about eating out, Gursoy said.

“If they feel they’re not in control and they don’t trust their environment, there will be fewer people frequenting (restaurants),” he said.

Mask up to open up

In Yakima County, restaurants and other businesses have promoted a “Mask up to open up” campaign advocating for people to wear masks to reduce infection and increase more business activity. Mask use in public has dramatically increased, from 35% over the Memorial Day weekend to 95% in early July, based on community surveys released by the health district.

Restaurants that have been able to reopen have stressed to customers on social media and elsewhere the importance of following safety measures.

Niles said his focus is not dwelling on the negative aspects of COVID-19 but encouraging diners to patronize local businesses, including his, whenever they can.

A few months ago, Niles co-developed a program where customers received discounts from one restaurant if they ordered takeout from another local participating restaurant.

Customers who aren’t ready to eat out in public will be more apt to support any restaurant if a connection is maintained, even if it’s a brief interaction when the customer picks up a takeout order, Niles said.

“They know they’re going to have a great experience with the people they’re interacting with,” Niles said. “Based on that, they’ll have a great experience with the food.”

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Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang