Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

I went to Starbucks and saw a chilly, post-COVID-19 coronavirus future

As Starbucks stops customers from sitting down and lingering, I wondered if everyone will soon order via technology and no one will sit in fast-food restaurants anymore.

I went to Starbucks, saw the post-Coronavirus future, and really didn't like it

Two tables sat in the middle of the floor.

One was oblong, the other circular.

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All the chairs had been stacked away, as if in a bar after closing time.

Yet this was Starbucks, my local Starbucks, the one that's so often buzzing in the morning with the chatter of locals, the pitter-patter of people on their laptops and the clatter of metal milk jugs being washed for the next customer.

This was my Starbucks during the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak.

On Monday, there was less staff and no one in line.

This was the first day of Starbucks' policy of -- temporarily, for now -- being only a to-go enterprise.

It's understandable in the circumstances. California is asking bars to shut down and restaurants to reduce their capacity by 50%, all to help create social distancing. Yet, for Starbucks and other fast-food businesses, will it ever be the same again?

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The eerie future?

(Image: Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNet)

The coffee chain was so prescient in developing its app services very early. For the longest time, it was the pre-eminent mobile payment system. Until, that is, Apple Pay overtook it late last year.

I prefer to waft in and talk to the baristas and ask them how they're doing. Sometimes, I stay and chat with my friend Jim -- always there with his iPad -- about the state of the world.

Many customers, however, just want to grab their mobile orders and disappear without so much as a by-your-leave. They don't care about the people. They just want their coffees.

Naturally, this has caused those who order personally to stand around more, waiting for their coffee.

Now, you wonder if the virus will make all this de-personalization permanent.

Many fast-food restaurants have steadily de-personalized their modes of business. McDonald's, for example, is swiftly rolling out touchscreen ordering. It's also experimenting with robots manning their drive-thrus. All in the quest of speed, rather than anything involving human connection.

All in the quest, also, of reducing labor costs.

Fast-food chains such as Chick-fil-A and Taco Bell are also going to-go only. For now.

How many of these chains, though -- once the Coronavirus has passed -- will decide that relying on just the technology of the drive-thru and mobile ordering is the sole way of the future?

And how much will be lost?