How Much Should You Tip at a Restaurant During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Spoiler alert: More than you were before.

Dining out is—and always has been—a luxury.

When my mom was raised on a rural Iowa farm in the 1960s, she, her seven siblings and her parents would dine out once or twice a year. By the time I was growing up in a chain restaurant-studded suburban city in the '90s, it was fairly normal for us to eat out about once a week. After working in the magazine industry in New York post-college, I moved to Des Moines and took on a side gig reviewing restaurants for the Des Moines Register, Iowa's largest newspaper. To keep up with the pace of deadlines and multiple visits per venue, it became typical to eat out almost daily. Still, it was never lost on me how much of a luxury it was to enjoy someone else's cooking—and to have it shared by some of the most caring, generous humans I know: service staff, management and chefs at restaurants.

Prior to the pandemic, the average American ate out six times per week and left an 18% tip, according to a Zagat survey. But the whole game changed once COVID-19 hit the U.S., when restaurant dining rooms shut down from coast to coast and sharing a room—and sharing a table—became one of the biggest health threats.

Within a matter of days, restaurant employees and delivery staff became front-line workers, with their only choice being quitting their job or putting their health at risk. And tipped workers, including servers, are often only paid the federal minimum tipped wage of $2.13. As a result, they rely on tips to pay their bills and survive.

"Even great restaurants are operating at about 40 to 50% of typical earnings. All the while we're fighting with guests about masks, trying to figure out how to source enough hand sanitizer and trying to keep other team members safe, which is taking a pretty drastic toll on the mental health of nearly everyone in the industry," say Jared Giunta, general manager at The Hall and The Beerhouse in West Des Moines, Iowa. "Shifts are getting cut and we're earning less because capacity is limited, so many are pinching pennies to try to pay our bills."

Sure, you can absolutely mask up to shop at the supermarket and cook your own breakfasts, lunches and dinners. But if restaurants in your area are open—and many of those that are open are struggling to pay rent, fight with their insurance companies and secure loans from the state and national government—I'm a strong proponent for supporting these local gems.

tipping at a restaurant
Getty / Tetra Images

Through my reporting for EatingWell and speaking with CDC experts at least weekly to cover the latest virus-related discoveries, I've learned that anything indoors is about 19 times riskier than outdoors, so I'm sticking to patio restaurant dining and takeout. For dining in, I've upped my typical 20 to 25% tip to 35 to 50%, and increased my usual 15% for takeout to more like 25 to 30%, since anything that results in interaction with others is a big risk right now. (Come to think of it, this is somewhat similar to the "hazard pay" that Trader Joe's instituted in March.)

Just as none of us can write an across-the-board coronavirus pandemic risk tolerance manual of "this is OK, this is not OK" (gyms? malls? beaches?), no one quite agrees on what we should be tipping for restaurant dining, takeout and delivery right now. It's a personal choice, but also something worth dedicated consideration—not just a few random coins dropped into a jar.

Because of the danger for all involved, one Eater New York food critic simply won't eat out for the time being, save for takeout. One Grub Street food writer promotes "people who can, should" tip 50% of the total bill, while other etiquette experts say 20 to 25% is solid.

"The little bit of gratitude of a tip means a lot," says Caroline Winter, vice president of Sweet Home Gelato, a family-owned dessert shop with multiple locations throughout Chicagoland, and might just sweeten someone's very stressful, very risky day.

If you want to support local and are short on extra dough to tip generously, perhaps you can order takeout or direct delivery from the restaurant. (It's worth noting that many delivery vendors take a 30% cut off the top of your order, hence the recommendation to select direct delivery or takeout.) Doing so not only leaves a table open for them to earn more money through but also reduces overall health risk for all involved since you're staying home. Then tip (in cash, if possible) what you can afford, be kind and leave a positive review online. Life is challenging and uncertain right now, and a positive feedback—and a generous tip—can mean so much.

"Tipping for service workers is always important—pandemic or not—however, it's vital now given that people are putting their lives at risk to provide a service. Being generous is always encouraged, but being nice is what's really key. Remember to be respectful to them and follow social distancing guidelines to ensure safety," says Leah Pilcer, the director of public relations and communications for New Belgium Brewing in Washington, D.C.

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