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Shared plates and a dozen family members or business associates seated around a big round table are hallmarks of Chinese restaurants. But in order to operate while COVID-19 is still a threat, such businesses will have to change not only their public-health practices but a dining culture as well.

British Columbia’s reopening plan allowed dining establishments, which were ordered closed for dine-in business in late March, to resume service last month. The Office of the Provincial Health Officer issued an order limiting them to 50 per cent of their usual capacity and requiring two metres between patrons sitting at different tables.

But for many Chinese restaurants, ensuring the safety of customers also means adopting individual servings and smaller tables.

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“Our Chinese dining culture may shift toward Western eating,” said Gigi Zheng, the owner of Prince Seafood Restaurant in Vancouver.

Ms. Zheng, who is also the financial director of the BC Asian Restaurant Café Owners Association, said that although some Chinese restaurants were already promoting individual serving culture before the pandemic, the public health crisis is “accelerating” the shift.

“We were [trying to] gradually change our customers’ dining customs. Now I think we have to speed up,” she said. “At this moment, everything is about ensuring hygiene and health.”

Even though serving utensils for shared plates are widely used by diners in Chinese restaurants in Canada, Ms. Zheng said some customers still prefer to use their own chopsticks or spoons, which makes individual servings so important.

Canada Catering Association president Charlie Huang said serving customers individual portions isn’t entirely new to Chinese restaurants, but the pandemic has prompted wider discussion of the practice.

“This will be a trend in the future,” he said.

In China, concerns about traditional communal dining accelerating the spread of COVID-19 have prompted Chinese authorities to launch an aggressive campaign to persuade diners to use serving chopsticks rather than their own. Officials in major cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou are calling on restaurateurs to serve individual portions.

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Ms. Zheng’s restaurant serves mainly Cantonese-style dishes, including dim sum. She said she’s had to adjust, coming up with a set assortment of dim sum items for individual orders.

The province’s reopening order also restricts tables to parties of six. With a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people still in place, banquets and big family gatherings or business functions, once common in most Chinese seafood restaurants, will disappear for a while.

In Richmond, the dining hall of Shun Feng Seafood Restaurant will have to be rearranged for small groups. Manager Benjamin Yeung said bigger groups, with numbers still below the government guidelines, would be seated in the restaurant’s private rooms.

But the loss of those big groups will simply be too much of a revenue hit for some restaurants. Alex Wang, executive director of Peninsula Seafood Restaurant in Vancouver, said his dining room, which heavily relied on banquets – about 40 per cent of its revenues – has no plan to reopen any time soon.

“High-end consumption will be less,” he said. And “people are used to gathering less.”

Mr. Huang said he was very disappointed with the province’s decision to limit tables to no more than six patrons. He had sent a letter to Premier John Horgan urging the government to allow tables of as many as 10 people.

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“According to the seafood restaurant Chinese food business model of 10 people per table, all big restaurants, half of our members who are operating with this model, will be unable to open due to your six-person regulations," the letter reads. “We hope that the provincial government can carefully consider the impact to the Chinese food industry."

But Ms. Zheng said her restaurant is ready to welcome smaller groups, with strict limits on each table’s seating capacity. She explained that in Chinese dining culture, family and friends like to sit close together for the sense of intimacy and so they can chat more easily. She noted that in the past her customers would often request additional chairs and squeeze in around the table.

“This will not be happening," she said. ”[Diners] need to make adjustments to this part of culture. Safety first.”

But Mr. Wang said he believes all these transformations will be temporary.

“For Chinese diners, the round table [dining] culture is hard to change.”

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