Aug. 7, 2020 -- Sharling Tellez was happy to be back at her local Starbucks in Alexandria, VA, on a warm July day, sipping her iced Chai latte while working on her laptop and talking with a friend. This was her first time back since the pandemic started and the chain began serving customers for take-out orders in May.

Tellez and other customers were sitting at tables mostly wearing masks on the Starbucks patio despite the heat and forecast of rain. The seating area inside remains closed to customers, another indication of how the pandemic has changed the café landscape.

But the days of lounging in comfy chairs or at tables inside coffee shops as soothing music plays in the background, tip-tapping on your laptop or reading a newspaper, appear to be a thing of the past, at least for now.

Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, the 2 largest coffee chains in the country, smaller chains such as Peets, and local specialty coffee stores all have taken numerous precautions following local mandates and public health guidance to protect staff and customers from COVID-19. Their safety policies include requiring staff and customers to wear masks/face coverings inside, physical distancing, hand washing, and sanitizing high-touch surfaces frequently.

As restrictions have lifted, some coffeeshops remain closed while others have reopened on a drive-through or curbside basis to keep customers outside the café space.

Peets decided to keep its interior spaces closed to customers when it reopened 50 of its stores in May in California and the Northwest, Illinois, Colorado, Maryland, and Virginia, according to Food Industry Executive. Peets officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Some independent coffee shops such as Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown, NY, a 40-minute drive from Manhattan, have stayed in business during the pandemic by letting customers call in their orders and pick them up curb-side.

The staff took out the tables and 19 seats inside to make room for employees to work and keep their distance from each other, says president Alicia Love. “We didn’t have the space to allow customers inside and keep us and our customers safe. We were also afraid of people not wearing masks indoors, which is required by law in New York, and getting into arguments.”

Love had one bad experience with a customer earlier in the pandemic who got angry when staff asked him to social distance. Now customers are used to lining up outside on the pre-set spacing decals to pick up their orders.

Nossa Familia (which means “Our Family” in Portuguese), which has three coffee shops in Portland, OR, and one in Los Angeles, has reopened its Pearl District Espresso Bar in Portland as a test-drive before opening up its other stores.

“This was an easy option -- the footprint was smaller and easier to adapt our service model to accommodate the new restrictions and guidelines for serving,” says Zack Willhoff, café retail manager at the Nossa Familia Lovejoy Espresso Bar in Portland.

Employees now stand behind a plexiglass barrier at a walk-up window so customers never enter the shop. Willhoff says that the store is open fewer hours -- from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. -- than before the 6-week shutdown that ended May 11. “Our staff dropped by two positions. Our current staff includes myself and another manager from another café location and two baristas who worked here before.”

Is it safe to linger inside?

COVID-19 is more likely to spread indoors. Household studies show that prolonged indoor exposure to someone with COVID-19 increases the risk of having the disease.

“The longer people spend time indoors with others, even at tables spaced apart, the greater the risk of transmission,” says Stephen Kissler, research fellow in the department of Immunology and infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

Drive-through, delivery, take-out, and curb-side pick-up are still the safest food service options, then sitting outside at tables spaced 6 feet apart to allow physical distancing, followed by sitting inside at tables spaced 6-feet apart. The highest risk of COVID-19 is indoor and outdoor seating without limits on the number of customers and no physical distancing, says CDC’s July updated guidance for bars and restaurants

But, if more cafes want to reopen their indoor seating, they can reduce the risk of COVID-19 further through plenty of ventilation. “Air flow is essential to preventing the buildup of virus particles in the air,” says Kissler. He and the CDC suggest opening windows and doors and using fans.

None of the three large coffee chains address air ventilation in their statements about how they are responding to COVID-19.

In addition, another Harvard infectious disease expert suggests that air-conditioned coffeeshops may be contributing to the spike in COVID-19 cases in the southern and western states.

Edward Nardell, a professor of environmental health and of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that hot summer temperatures can create situations similar to those in winter, when respiratory ailments tend to surge, driving people indoors to breathe — and rebreathe —air that typically is rarely refreshed from outside, according to a June 29 Harvard Gazette article.

Airborne transmission involving viral particles that hang in the air and drift on currents, would make people even more vulnerable to the virus in a closed room. For example, carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rise steeply in an office occupied by five people, as windows are closed and air conditioners turned on, which indicates that occupants are rebreathing air in the room and from each other.

“As people go indoors in hot weather and the fraction of rebreathed air goes up, the risk of infection is quite dramatic,” Nardell says, noting that the data, while gathered related to tuberculosis, would apply to any infection with airborne potential.

He suggests that ultraviolet lights long used to sterilize the air of tuberculosis bacteria could do the same for coronavirus.

Allowing Customers Inside

Many chain coffeeshops are now allowing customers inside on a carry-out basis and a limited number are allowing customers to dine-in again.

“With more than 90% of Dunkin’ locations open for carry-out service, reopening dining rooms is not a big issue for us as it is for other brands,” Karen Raskopf, chief communications and sustainability officer at Dunkin' Brands, says by email. “However, as more cities open up for business, we are assessing how franchisees can safely reopen dining areas, following the guidance of public health officials.”

About 30 Dunkin’ restaurants in Massachusetts without drive-throughs have reopened their dining areas, adds Raskopf.

Starbucks is also reopening dining areas in certain locations. The dining area was open at a Starbucks at another Alexandria, VA, location with several tables and chairs spaced 6-feet apart where a few customers were sitting wearing masks and enjoying their drinks and food. The manager, who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak to the media, decided that it was safe. The space is large enough to physically distance customers at tables/chairs and the staff can clean and sanitize the tables and chairs every 30 minutes, which is the Starbucks standard for high-touch areas. The big comfy soft cloth and leather lounge chairs are gone because they were too hard to clean, the manager says.

Starbucks corporate office declined to be interviewed for this article.

Different Customer Experience

The major chains require customers to wear face coverings inside the stores. Signs on a local Dunkin Donuts store in Fairfax, VA, say “no mask, no service.” Starbucks has given its employees the right to refuse to serve customers that don’t wear face coverings. The company also points out online that customers who don’t wear face coverings have other service options including drive-thru, curbside pickup through the Starbucks app or placing an order for delivery through Starbucks Deliver. Peets also has app and offers similar services.

To minimize contact with customers, many coffee shops accept only credit card or virtual payment and encourage customers to use their apps to pre-order and pre-pay. They have also stopped refilling customers’ personal coffee cups or mugs to avoid touching them.

Kenneth Hamilton, a retired Air Force veteran, buys coffee and a donut regularly at the Dunkin Donuts at the Belle View Shopping Mall in Alexandria. He misses bringing his stainless-steel cup for coffee refills and now uses the Baskin-Robbins/Dunkin phone app to pre-order and prepay and get a free beverage after so many purchases. “This is more efficient than waiting in line because I go directly to the ice-cream counter where a carboard box has my order and ticket on it with my name,” says Hamilton.

Willhoff, the Nossa Familia manager, says that the nice thing about reopening is talking with customers again even behind a plexiglass window. Love, the Coffee Labs Roasters president, says that while her customers are disappointed that they can’t come inside her coffee shop yet, she plans to stick with the current arrangement. “In New York, people are concerned about a second wave in the fall.”

In the meantime, customers may want to linger over that cup of java outside or at home.

Show Sources

Sharling Tellez, Starbucks customer in Alexandria VA.

Andrea Caulfield, Starbucks customers in Alexandria VA.

Shannon Schultz, anonymous Starbucks manager in Alexandria VA.

Alicia Love, president of Coffee Labs Roasters, Tarrytown NY.

Zack Willhoff, café retail manager, Nossa Familia Lovejoy Expresso Bar, Portland OR.

Karen Raskopf, chief communications and sustainability officer at Dunkin' Brands in Canton, MA. (*could only verify HQ location based on press releases).

Stephen Kissler, research fellow in the department of immunology and infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston MA.

The CDC: “Considerations for Restaurants and Bars.” “When is Starbucks Reopening?”

Oxford Academic: “Characteristics of Household Transmission of COVID-19.”

The Harvard Gazette: “Is air conditioning helping spread COVID in the South?”

The Industry Executive: “Peet’s Coffee To Reopen 35 US Locations On May 4th As Part Of A Phased Approach.”

The Industry Executive: “Peet’s Coffee Reopens 13 More Location Across the US on MAY 28th, as Part of Phased Approach.” “COVID-19 UPDATES.” “At a glance: What customers need to know about Starbucks response to COVID-19.” “Navigating through COVID-19.”

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