Stuffed Pandas and Blow-up Dolls: How Restaurants Are Helping Diners Maintain Distance

Blow-up dolls help diners maintain their distance at a South Carolina restaurant. Photo: NBCLA

As lockdown orders lift across the country, restaurants are reopening their dining rooms to a world that’s markedly different than it was two months ago. Along with masked servers and customers — and tables that have been moved into streets and parking lots — indoor seating in most restaurants will be limited to a fraction of the space’s capacity. And some restaurants are coming up with novel ways to fill what remains.

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine’s reopening orders stated that restaurants must space tables six feet apart or install physical barriers. The breakfast spot Twisted Citrus is gearing up for its May 21 opening by hanging shower curtains between tables. “Six feet between tables would have limited us to maybe eight to ten tables, which financially would not have made it worthwhile to open back up for us,” co-owner Kim Shapiro told CNN.

As Shapiro acknowledged, restaurants still need to feel warm and welcoming, despite all the protective measures. Shower curtains, she said, allow diners to still see each other, a key part of going out to eat.

Dante Boccuzzi, who owns several restaurants in Ohio, told that he’ll use plexiglass to create barriers between tables when his businesses reopen. “My plan is to create, basically, a dining cubicle,” he said. “It’s not a foolproof safety measure, but I think it’s more for comfort. This way, people can sit down in their own cubicle and relax, and they don’t need to worry about a guy sneezing, even if he’s six feet away.”

Diners patronizing the Inn at Little Washington, a three-star Michelin restaurant in Virginia, won’t have to worry about the mannequins sitting next to them coughing or sneezing.

The restaurant is complying with mandates to reduce half its capacity by filling the dinerless portion of its seats with mannequins that have been costumed (with the help of a local theater company) to resemble 1940s partygoers. If the whole thing weren’t creepy enough, servers will apparently be asked to wait on the lifeless diners, serving them drinks and engaging in idle, unrequited chitchat. Sadly, the waiters will not be tipped for their services.

A similar (but much cuter) scene is playing out at Bangkok’s Maison Saigon, where stuffed panda bears are occupying some of the restaurant’s seats to ensure humans stay safely distant.

Paula Starr Melehes, owner of South Carolina’s Open Hearth, has reserved ten seats for blow-up dolls in her restaurant. Melehes told WTHR that the dolls — a “G-rated” model she ordered from Amazon — have attracted local attention and brought in new customers, including some who harbor impure thoughts. “I might even kiss one of those dolls before the night’s over,” customer Rob McCarter told the TV station.

“My grandson told me they look kind of creepy,” Melehes told WYFF. “But I think when people walk in, they’re going to laugh.”

How Restaurants Are Helping Diners Maintain Distance