“Where should we go out to eat?”

Remember when the hardest part of answering that question was choosing a restaurant that would satisfy everyone? Now, amid a global pandemic in which fear, anxiety, and uncertainty rule, the guiding principle is safety. The new question is, “Where do we feel comfortable going out to eat?”

With a city- and county-supported initiative called Back on the Bull, Durham businesses, including restaurants, can complete a free and voluntary online certification that provides industry-specific health and safety checklists. Diners can search the online database of participating restaurants and see which measures they’re implementing, then make an informed decision about where they’ll feel safest.

“[The goal is to] make it as safe as possible for staff and visitors, to increase the understanding of the value businesses are bringing to the community, and to inspire additional support,” says Mariel Beasley, a principal at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University (CAH), which was tapped by the Durham Recovery & Renewal Task Force to incorporate behavioral-science research into the planning tools.

The task force is a group of 15 community members, including public health experts, business leaders, and community and faith leaders, who were appointed to advise Mayor Steve Schewel and County Commission Chair Wendy Jacobs as Durham reopens.

Beasley praises existing programs such as Count on Me NC, a voluntary certification created by the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association that offers hospitality businesses public health-backed guidelines for protecting consumers. But Back on the Bull’s behavioral-science lens adds another dimension to engendering consumer confidence.

“We wanted to peel back the layer a bit and make visible the invisible,” Beasley says. “That transparency is such an important piece to that confidence.”

Transparency is key because it helps address risk and probability, concepts that Beasley says human beings don’t understand well, especially with unknown factors such as COVID-19.

“People understand that there are risky things going on, but they don’t understand the risk levels,” she explains. “But providing some sort of transparent view into looking at all the things people are doing can help people who are extra cautious to make better judgments and feel safer.”

Beasley also says humans have limited attention spans and tend to be egocentric. Thus, we only think of and value what we can easily see in front of us. To that end, Back on the Bull tapped McKinney, a Durham-based creative agency, to develop branding, posters, and social media assets in English and Spanish to visually convey the procedures businesses are implementing.

McKinney also designed Back on the Bull’s website, which includes the planning and certification tool and printable PDFs for each business’ checklist. Before venturing out, consumers can search an online database of all participating businesses, which can be filtered by parameters such as Black-, female-, Hispanic/Latinx-, LGBTQ+-, or other minority-owned businesses. Clicking on a business shows the top five health and safety measures it has committed to, as well as an option to view the complete list.

The top five for Durham Food Hall, an early adopter of Back on the Bull, includes requiring employees to wear a clean mask each day; removing tables and chairs and arranging them at least six feet apart; screening staff daily, in their native language, for common COVID-19 symptoms; disinfecting the surfaces of frequently touched objects at least once per hour; and posting the CDC guidelines for staff. Back on the Bull checklists and campaign posters are also prominently displayed on the food hall’s entryway windows and inside the space.

The transparency in making this information public not only helps to inspire trust among consumers, but also serves as an added commitment device for business owners.

“Devices are helpful to follow through on intentions. They give us accountability,” Beasley says. “When restaurants are publicly posting commitments, they’re outsourcing that additional accountability, and they’re more likely to follow through on their intentions.”

Posting checklists that clearly outline a business’s health-and-safety measures can also help employees feel safer coming to work. It also helps to convey the added value that participating businesses are bringing to the community.

“Through joining the Back on the Bull campaign and making our dedication to COVID safety front and center, our staff feels a sense of encouragement from the positive reactions we receive from guests,” says Adair Mueller, Durham Food Hall’s founder. “[This] is extremely rewarding right now, when we’re putting so much time and effort into it.”

Restaurant owners have also had to redefine hospitality with public health and staff safety in mind. Some of Back on the Bull’s recommendations for dine-in service include minimizing table visits by having servers clear the table once everyone has finished. To reduce time spent tableside, servers are encouraged to place all food at the front of the table for guests to distribute themselves. To reduce contaminated surfaces, disposable plates and utensils are recommended, and single-use condiments replace condiment caddies.

Implementing and communicating these additional safety measures comes at an added monetary and mental health cost for restaurateurs, something that the average diner probably wouldn’t have thought about pre-pandemic. Hopefully, this transparency will help illuminate what it takes to operate a restaurant and the value of its workforce.

Perhaps in the future, diners will ask, “Where should we eat where we know the staff will feel as comfortable as us?”

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

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