estaurants and bars around the world are starting to reopen, often at just 50% capacity. But how do you make a half-empty bar look buzzing? And how can owners ensure that diners stay a safe distance from one another? Here are five creative answers to the problem of socialising while social distancing.


Some enterprising owners are using mannequins to get bums on seats. The idea started in the US, where the three-Michelin-starred Inn at Little Washington in Virginia is working with a local design company and a theatre to create elegantly dressed “dining mannequins” to fill the spaces between real-life guests. The Open Hearth restaurant in Taylors, South Carolina, chose a budget version: blow-up dolls ordered from Amazon. The idea has since spread to Europe. In Austria, several Viennese bars and cafes have installed mannequins, including historic Café Central and cocktail bar Kleinod Prunkstück. Mannequins used in various restaurants in Vilnius, Lithuania, have a dual purpose: as well as filling tables, they also showcase fashions by local designers. Australia has a different spin on the idea: Five Dock Dining in Sydney has seats filled with cardboard cutouts of people, and is playing guest chatter over the speakers instead of music.


Café Rothe in Schwerin, northern Germany, has been issuing patrons with hats topped with three foam pool noodles in a T-shape – each float is 1.5 metres long, to ensure no one gets too close. Similar hats, made from balloons, have been spotted on visitors to Shiniuzhai national geological park in China’s Hunan province.


Technology that alerts the wearer if others get too close is being developed to help people return to work safely. Gadgets range from hard hats for construction workers – that buzz if someone comes too near – to beeping bracelets for factory workers. Such devices will also be useful in restaurants and at tourist attractions – the Duomo in Florence is giving visitors sensors to wear around their necks that beep softly, vibrate and flash when two people come within less than two metres of each other. Beaches in Spain are installing sensors on lampposts to monitor the number of people on a particular stretch; visitors can check an app to find quieter spots.


Mini greenhouses at Mediamatic, Amsterdam
Mini greenhouses at Mediamatic, Amsterdam

The restaurant at Mediamatic, an arts centre in Amsterdam, is trialling five mini canalside greenhouses. Inside each is a table for two, at which people from the same household can dine, served by staff wearing face shields. The food is delivered on long wooden planks so waiters don’t have to enter the greenhouse. The idea has inspired the owner of a pub in another watery location: the Norfolk Broads. The Lion at Thurne will have three greenhouses, each seating six, ready and waiting when pubs reopen in England.

Bumper tables

And finally … Fish Tales restaurant in Maryland has introduced “bumper tables”. Individual diners stand inside the circular tables, which are edged with giant inner tubes. The tables are on wheels, so customers can mingle without getting too close. Well, it’s more fun than eating behind a shower curtain.