What if ... we turned city public spaces into a big open-air cafe?

I floated something like this a few days ago after reading the new Chinese study that found almost zero cases of COVID transmission outdoors in a study of more than 300 discrete outbreaks. The closest we’re going to get to enjoying our favorite entertainment options from the “before times” until there’s a vaccine is by moving everything outdoors. Bars, restaurants, maybe even some retail. Anything that can go al fresco should go al fresco.

Maybe even schools!

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is ready to try it. At least with bars and restaurants.

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafes will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine,” said Remigijus Šimašius. Public safety remained the city’s top priority, the mayor said, but the measure should help cafes to “open up, work, retain jobs and keep Vilnius alive”.

Eighteen of the city’s public spaces, including its central Cathedral Square, have been opened up for outdoor cafes and restaurants, city hall said, and more are expected to be added as the summer progresses. The move has been welcomed by owners, with more than 160 applying to take up the offer.

Businesses are free to set up tables outside their front doors too, but that’s tricky since Vilnius’s streets are narrow and some degree of physical separation needs to be maintained even outside. Large spaces like plazas can help solve that problem. One obvious consequence of moving operations outdoors, I assume, will be highly streamlined menus: Unless your restaurant is located near enough to the plaza that food can be ferried from the kitchen, it’ll have to be cooked on site or a large number of pre-made dishes will need to be transported there at the start of the day and reheated. That means less variety and more economical ingredients. We may see that from bars here in the U.S. too:

“If you have a 20-cocktail menu, it’s going to cost you twice as much to restock as a ten-cocktail list,” says Detrich. That’s less of an issue if bars embrace simpler drinks. “I think you’ll see a big return to classics. People will be looking for Manhattans and Martinis, not shiso leaf Ramos Gin Fizzes,” Detrich says.

“I would trim to 50 or 60 percent off the menu,” Finter suggests to clients, both to reduce inventory costs and re-training. He says that about 80 percent of sales typically come from just 20 percent of the drinks and it makes sense to focus on those. “Customers won’t be looking for big menus.”

Makes sense. If you’re willing to risk infection by joining a loose congregation of people dining or drinking, odds are you’re not doing it for the fare. You’re there for the experience, because you miss going to bars and restaurants. You’ll take whatever they bring you.

Two problems, though. Can this be done in a financially viable way? The Times has a story out today about a new, and perfectly predictable, economic problem that China’s wrestling with. Workers are back on the job, but consumers aren’t spending: “Overall sales of furniture, clothing, household appliances and jewelry each plunged by a quarter to a third in March compared a year earlier. On the street and in malls, many stores have plenty of clerks and some window shoppers but few actual buyers.” The article excerpted above about how American bars might reopen quotes one expert who estimates that fewer than 10 percent of bars could survive if they had to operate at 80 percent of normal revenue. That problem would be eased to some extent if bars could operate in public spaces — no more rent to pay! — but the question of how many people would turn out in the middle of a pandemic to pay for a drink outdoors, in a somewhat crowded park or plaza, remains.

There’s a logistical problem too. Imagine D.C. turning over the National Mall to accommodate businesses. As big it is, there’s obviously not enough space for all of Washington’s bars and restaurants to spread out there. Who would decide who gets a spot on the lawn (or in other parks) and who doesn’t? Would it be done by lottery? Would a particular spot be given to one business three days a week and a different business the other three days? How could three days of revenue be enough to sustain either?

And how would cities manage congestion on the Mall? People still need to remain at arm’s length outdoors. A throng of thousands milling about among a variety of open-air bars and eateries, like a giant farmer’s market, is a recipe for an outbreak. And all it would take is one outbreak traced to the site to basically shut the thing down. Even if the city didn’t do it, customers would abandon it out of fear.

Restaurants and bars are better off focusing on delivery and curbside pick-up. Anything the state can do to defray costs stemming from that should be done. Hollywood’s already figuring out how lucrative home delivery can be: Read this WSJ piece about the killing Universal has made by releasing their new animated feature, “Trolls World Tour,” to VOD. In three weeks they’ve seen $100 million in rentals, which is a sweet deal for the studio since they keep much more of the take from home box office (around 80 percent) than they do from theater box office (around 50 percent). “Its performance has convinced Universal executives that digital releases can be a winning strategy, and may diminish the role of theaters even after the pandemic passes,” the Journal notes. Theaters — well, some theaters — may still exist for superhero movies and other major spectacles that can’t be enjoyed the same way at home as on the big screen, but VOD as an avenue for releasing new features may never look back.

We may end up seeing something similar with restaurants in the short term. Since some dishes don’t travel as well as others, like pizza, restaurants may revamp their menus for delivery options, and the ones that do well that way may never look back. Maybe post-COVID America will have scarce dine-in options (at least at first) catering to fine cuisine alongside an enormous boom in takeout joints for cheaper eats as people get used to dining at home. Movie theaters vs. VOD, except with food.

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