How to Build Event Floor Plans and Layouts for Social Distancing
The coronavirus pandemic has been upon the U.S. for (at least) 4 months and unfortunately the end is nowhere in sight.
However, despite all the death, sickness, economic carnage, physical distancing, travel bans and massive life changes this has brought on us all, it’s refreshing to talk to so many business owners - including those of hard-hit restaurants and event venues - who still have a positive outlook for resetting their business when social distancing measures start to relax, bit-by-bit.
Over the coming months, as states begin to ease social distancing restrictions, restaurants, venues, retail stores, office buildings and other public spaces will find themselves on the front lines trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19 while simultaneously trying to serve customers well, take care of their needs AND stay in business.
This is a huge ask for businesses and goes well beyond doling out hand sanitizer, reminding patrons to “wash your hands” and wear face masks, and potentially checking for symptoms like fever at the door. It asks these merchants to create truly safe spaces in a world where no space feels safe or free of potentially deadly germs. And it asks them this in the face of massive uncertainty if they will be permitted to stay open due to future spikes in coronavirus infections and community outbreaks.
And speaking of uncertainty, these restaurants, venues, offices and stores will also have to navigate the vague guidelines of the Opening Up America Again initiative and the (hopefully) more detailed regulations of state and local governments that will probably limit capacities (and hence revenues). It’s enough to make Anthony Fauci cringe and Anthony Bourdain turn in his grave (god rest his soul).
The Impossible Task (That We Will Still Undertake)
This seems like an impossible task because none of us feel we are fully equipped with all the knowledge, infrastructure, governmental support, budget, equipment or protective gear to take on this insurmountable task.
And yet we feel we must, because at some point, we all want and desperately need and crave for living to go on (and to be frank, what we have been experiencing is not living … it’s some sustained limbo existence that vaguely represents a whisper of what we want our lives to be). And we as business owners want to help people start living again in the most responsible, safe, caring and compassionate way possible.
So in the face of all that uncertainty and lack of resources, we will take a look at one significant way that restaurants, event venues and offices can battle the spread of the coronavirus and promote public health … through building social distancing floor plans and room layouts that can create physical distance between patrons.
A Caveat (Because Everything Comes With One Nowadays)
One note … because state and local governments are coming out with varying and frequently changing social distancing requirements for public places and because none of us (including doctors and epidemiologists) know exactly what is a safe distance to prevent the spread of this virus, the ideas and models discussed here are just that - ideas and models - and they should not be taken as gospel.
With that understanding, you should follow whatever current requirements are in place with your state and local community and what guidelines your local health officials and health department are recommending regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and any related distancing rules and regulations.
Also, you will need to consider how to mitigate the liability risk of opening your doors during the pandemic, as you don't want to leave yourself open to lawsuits if employees or patrons contract the virus at your facility.
With all that said, the common goals remain the same - create physical distance, reduce risk, bring down the number of cases and squash the coronavirus outbreak.
The models we describe below can apply to restaurants, hotel meeting and conference rooms, conference centers, reception and banquet halls and any setting where food and catered meals are served or where people are attending in-person meetings or celebrations.
The 6-Foot / 2-Meter Physical Distancing Standard
At this time, the common definition of an appropriate social distance between people is 6 feet or 2 meters (approximately 6.56 feet), according to the latest guidance for businesses and employers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
For what it’s worth, the Opening Up America Again documentation released by the Trump administration recommends “strict physical distancing for large venues” during Phase 1 of reopening (followed by moderate distancing in Phase 2 and limited distancing in Phase 3), and how local health departments and governments translate that mandate to capacity limits in the workplace will also dictate at how many tables you will be able to seat diners and how many chairs you can place at those tables.
Restaurant Dining Floor Plans for Social Distancing
Typically, full service dining layouts allow for 12-15 sq. ft. per customer, and below is an example of a 2,500 sq.ft. open floor plan dining area with a 12-13 sq.ft. per customer allotment (we used 36-inch square tables in a grid just as an illustration … we know not all restaurants have perfectly square dining rooms and that they use a variety of tables and booths in their layouts).
FYI ... here's a great infographic on standard event room setups and dimensions.
This layout allows us to add 49 square tables seating 196 people, with 3 feet of buffer space between tables.
If we use a 6-foot social distancing floor plan layout (per CDC safe distance guidelines), we end up with half the number of tables (25) and approximately half the number of potential diners (100).
And if your state or local authorities require clear passage requirements for guests or servers so that they have 6 feet of distance on both sides of main aisles, this would entail the removal of additional tables, as shown here.
Banquet Dining Floor Plans for Social Distancing
Now let’s look at a typical banquet floor plan setup using 6-foot round tables and 10 seats per table (again in a 2,500 sq.ft. area). We are going to use a serving area of 5 feet between tables (which is fairly standard), which leaves about 2 feet between attendees when their chairs are pushed out fully.
This event floor plan setup allows us to place 20 tables in the space and 200 people in seats.
Now let’s add another 4 feet between tables to ensure that when guests are fully pushed away from the table they are still 6 feet away from each other. This also requires us to remove 6 chairs per table to ensure adequate distance.
Note: For this example, we are making the assumption that guests at each table are all in the same family/group or "exposure cohort", which we define later in this article. If this is not the case for your events, you may want to opt for smaller tables and/or fewer seats at each table to ensure 6-foot spacing between all seated attendees.
Implementing the 6-foot social distancing room layout standard, you can see that left us with 15 tables and 4 people per table for a total of 60 seated guests. Based on this, it may make more sense in the interim to use smaller tables for your banquet setups (like in the restaurant dining layout earlier).
Meeting Room Floor Plans for Social Distancing
Often called classroom setups, these event floor plans usually involve more narrow seminar-style tables (18 inches deep and either 6 feet or 8 feet long) and 3 feet between tables.
Here’s an example of this setup in a 2,500 sq.ft. room with 20 seminar tables (8 foot x 18 inch dimension) and 3 persons per table for a total of 60 guests.
Now let’s add social distancing to the mix by spacing the tables 6 feet apart and the guests 6 feet from each other.
Adding the social distancing dimensions results in 12 tables with 1.5 people per table for a total of 18 people in the room.
These differences between standard dining / meeting floor plan setups and more stringent social distancing floor plans should give you a sense of what kinds of meeting, event and dining layouts may work for your venue or events moving forward.
Auditorium Floor Plans for Social Distancing
Here is where things get very tricky. If each guest or attendee requires six feet of space between them and any other guest, then your social distancing floor plans will look like a checkerboard grid of spaced out dots, which dramatically reduces audience size and still may not work properly if guests don’t maintain distance when going to and departing from their seats.
In a normal auditorium setup, chairs are ideally 3 inches apart and rows are 2 feet apart. Using those dimensions, in this scenario, a 2,500 sq.ft. room with three aisles and 13 rows of 20 chairs each will seat 260 persons comfortably.
However, if you were to space out each seated attendee from other attendees, below is what that would look like (while designating aisles for ingress and egress that are wide enough to allow for six feet of buffer).
With 6 feet between each attendee and 8 feet for two aisles (one for entry, one for exit), you would be able to accommodate 30 guests in the same space.
An alternative could be to seat attendees in “exposure cohorts”, meaning that groups of two, three or four attendees could be seated together because they are couples or families who have been exposed to each other on an ongoing basis (and hence don’t “require” social distancing because they have regularly been sharing the same germs in the same living space for weeks/months).
Here’s an example of a social distancing floor plan with “exposure cohorts” of one, two, three and four chair groups spaced 6 feet apart from each other; this doubles the room capacity to 60 guests.
You can see how to slice-and dice these arrangements, but once you have arrived at the desired room design, you will still need to plan for how these guests will get to the meeting room as well as accommodate for access to restrooms and other facilities on your premises.
Additional Tips for Social Distancing Room Layouts
Here are several more things to keep in mind when setting up your social distancing event designs to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease and reduce exposure to both patrons and employees during this pandemic.
Use seating zones for different sizes of groups
Now more than ever you want to maximize the use of your space while minimizing contact between groups of patrons (that is, couples or families with children who are in their own “exposure cohort”, as described above).
An innovative way to do this could be to arrange your dining area so that two-tops are in one area, four-tops in another, etc. This allows you to use space more efficiently and be able to spread out different sized dining groups from each other to mitigate risk of virus transmission.
Remove self-service fixtures or buffets and replace them with more seating
None of us would have imagined the coronavirus crisis would cause a complete workplace reconfiguration for some businesses, but this is what it has come to.
Along with other best practices for restaurants and food service businesses released by the Food and Drug Administration, part of their social distancing guidelines and food safety restrictions include “discontinuing operations, such as salad bars, buffets, and beverage service stations, that require customers to use common utensils or dispensers.”
If possible, temporarily removing these unusable displays/installations and replacing them with seating can open up more space for whatever social distance setup you decide on.
Use plexiglass separators between guests at tables or bars and at your cash register
There will be times when your guests will not maintain a safe distance from each other and your employees despite your best efforts. This could happen at common areas like bars or at your cash register where customers pay.
In those cases, you may want to erect plexiglass separators in those locations so that guests and employees in closer proximity cannot directly breathe, cough or sneeze on each other. It’s certainly not as safe as everyone donning personal protective equipment, but it’s better than unimpeded open air.
Widen aisles and guide foot traffic with floor decals
You will want to allow for guests and employees to give each other a wide berth when moving about your facility. The first step is widening aisles, and the second is providing directional and foot traffic instructions using floor stickers.
In areas where there tends to be more congestion (seating waiting areas, reception areas, cash registers, restrooms), you may want to add floor decals in 6-foot increments to show guests where they need to stand and wait.
NOTE: You may also want to post social distancing signs / signage that outline the safety guidelines that guests and patrons are expected to follow.
Utilize outdoor seating spaces
Although we don’t yet precisely know the extent of how far the novel coronavirus can travel, scientists have stated that it is safer to be outdoors than indoors when it comes to transmission risk from an infectious individual. This is because in outdoor areas “the volume of air space on which we have an impact expands enormously” and the concentration of potentially contaminated air is diluted. So not only does outdoor seating expand overall seating capacity, but it also offers a potentially safer environment than an inside dining area.
Post your facility's safety requirements at all entrances and exits
Maintaining a safe environment is not entirely all on you ... your guests and patrons also need to play a huge role in maintaining the safety and health of everyone in your establishment. With that said, you should post all requirements and regulations that all guests or customers are expected to follow, ideally with easy-to-read and easy-to-follow instructions printed clearly on posters.
Depending on the social distancing and health requirements of your local government and health department, these regulations may include guidance on:
- Wearing of face masks and coverings to prevent coronavirus transmission and where/when this practices is required in and around your establishment.
- Benefits of thorough handwashing, especially after use of restroom facilities and when in contact with surfaces that other people regular come into contact with.
- Foot traffic ingress/egress into, out of and around your event venue or restaurant.
- Usage of shared / public areas like restrooms, cash register/checkout areas, waiting areas and other areas where people may congregate in and near your venue.
Encourage reservations, take-out, delivery and virtual visits or tours
Anything you can do to minimize the effects of the pandemic in your venue or workplace will pay dividends for your community and business down the road in the form of goodwill and a quicker recovery from the coronavirus epidemic.
This can include minimizing lines of people in and outside of your establishment as well as patrons gathering in waiting areas. Requiring people to make advance reservations is a great solution for this potential problem.
In addition, providing your diners with incentives to order take-out or delivery is another way to serve your patrons and help reduce COVID-19 transmission. And if you have potential clients who are interested in renting your event venue or space, virtual visits and tours are also a good option, whether they are in the form of a pre-recorded walkthrough or a live camera feed of you showing them your space in real time.
We are not epidemiologists, scientists or health department officials, so none of this should be taken as a foolproof solution for eliminating the spread of coronavirus infections in public spaces.
However, we have tried to use the recommended guidance from government experts (Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration) on proper social distancing to show you how you can develop room layouts/setups models and internal guidelines for putting the health and well-being of your customers and guests first.
As this pandemic goes on and as COVID-19 cases ebb and flow, we will all learn more about this highly communicable disease and there will be even better information on how businesses can help improve public health. You will be on the front lines with our health care systems and health care workers, and we are with every one of you in this struggle.