As patrons in San Francisco return to restaurants Friday to dine outside, some may find themselves eating and drinking while separated from their fellow diners by thin plexiglass shields. It may be the look of the future.
As restaurants and bars grapple with how to begin bringing people back together, they're also strategizing how to keep them apart. Companies have begun installing viral guards on patio tables, counters and along bars in order to protect patrons from spreading COVID-19.
"The challenge is how to dine outside with 6 feet," said Andres Bernal, a former food tour guide who at the beginning of the pandemic started a company that installs plexiglass shields in restaurants and bars.
On Thursday, Bernal attached a pair of acrylic shields to the long wooden counter of Acquolina restaurant in North Beach. The plexiglass shields are intended to separate patrons without inhibiting the feeling of socializing.
Bernal attached the shields to the bar and tables with Velcro, so they can be moved according to restaurants' needs. He said there could even be situations where the panels could be supplied if a customer specifically requested them.
"We don't want to get in the way of people having fun, but we want to give them the protection and the comfort they need," said Bernal, who named his company Reopen America.
Dario Nicotra, owner of Acquolina, said the experiencing of dining out isn't just about food — it's an experience that's meant to be shared. Which is why when Bernal walked into his restaurant pitching his shields, Nicotra saw it as a perfect solution.
"I can talk to you when I eat because there is something that is there, but it's not there because it's invisible," Nicotra said.
While the shields may be clear, their future in restaurants and bars isn't. La Mar restaurant on the Embarcadero enlisted Bernal to install plexiglass shields at the restaurant's outdoor bar, which has been selling cocktails to go.
"We are very concerned about our employees and really want to show people we care about a safe experience at La Mar," said manager Thomas Medl.
But Medl said the restaurant had no immediate plans to install the shields along its bar counter or on tables. He said the restaurant had an abundance of space to allow customers to sit apart. But he speculated the restaurant industry wouldn't go back to its old self for a long time.
"It's going to be very different for all of us," he said.
Many in the food and alcohol industry wonder if the future of their industry will mean customers isolated behind viral guards — sipping cocktails at bars or dining in a restaurant — with a plastic shield between them.
"We have to navigate through this storm and do whatever we can," Nicotra said.