It prides itself on being a hub for all types of social interactions, but Starbucks (SBUX 0.53%) is neutralizing the "third space" aspect of the business for the foreseeable future.

The coffee chain said over the weekend that it is temporarily moving its stores in the U.S. and Canada to a "to go" operating model, meaning that the cafes will cease catering to sit-down traffic.

A woman holding a to-go coffee cup.

Image source: Getty Images.

Starbucks management says it plans to continue serving customers on a walk-up or drive-thru basis, but says it's removing the seating both in its cafe and outdoor patio areas -- a shift meant to "encourage social distancing in an effort to help contain the COVID-19 virus."

The new operating model will last for at least two weeks, but the pandemic situation is fluid enough that this strategy might undergo significant changes. It was only four days ago, after all, that the restaurant chain said coffee fans might see "limited seating" in some of its locations.

Starbucks has already temporarily closed a fraction of its stores that are located in high-traffic areas like malls, at universities, and in metropolitan areas that are seeing elevated clusters of coronavirus cases -- it might eventually do the same with many more. It is, however, back to operating at nearly full capacity in China today after temporarily shutting many of its stores there.