Restaurants and bars represent one of the first areas state and local leaders target when trying to curb the spread of COVID-19 in their jurisdictions. Consistently focusing on restaurants, though, can make it seem as if these businesses are, in fact, superspreaders. But is that a fair representation for restaurants? The National Restaurant Association emphatically says no.
“There is an unfounded impression that restaurants are part of the problem, and we are suffering as a result of inconsistent, restrictive mandates,” said Tom Bené, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association in a letter sent to the National Governors Association. “Data tying systemic community outbreaks of COVID-19 to restaurants has yet to emerge, but we are too commonly labelled as ‘super-spreaders,’ and have become a convenient scapegoat for reflexive shutdowns.”
In the letter, the National Restaurant Association said there is no scientific evidence linking restaurants to the increase in COVID-19 cases and urges them to consider policies and regulations that will enable the industry to safely serve their communities for the duration of the pandemic. “To date, we have not found any systemic outbreaks of COVID-19 from the hundreds of thousands of restaurants around the country that operate within the association’s guidance and follow local public health and safety regulations,” the letter says.
Still, the association seemingly understands governors will need to make difficult choices in the coming days and weeks about how to slow the spread of the virus within their communities. With that in mind, the NRA has a simple request: Treat the restaurant industry fairly.
Along those lines, as governors, and other local leaders for that matter, determine whether socially facing businesses like restaurants should be closed or scaled back, the NRA urged them to take into consideration a series of considerations:
- Regulations and decisions regarding restaurant operations be based on facts and contact-tracing data, not hypothetical simulations of transmission.
- When imposing restrictive regulations, such as capacity restrictions or shutdowns, it should be clear what health metrics must be achieved to return to the previous level.
- Treat restaurant operations the same as other retail establishments. Shutting down indoor dining should be considered a last option.
- If a shutdown is mandated, recognize restaurants as essential businesses that remain open for off-premises sales such as takeout, delivery, and drive-thru, as well as outdoor dining.
- Restaurants should receive as much advance notice as possible of changing regulations.
The letter also noted restaurants have enhanced the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Code practices with the association’s COVID-19 Safe Operating Guidance document to require face coverings for staff, request face coverings for guests, add more frequent hand sanitizing, provide guests with hand sanitizers, and increase frequency of cleaning and sanitizing high-touch surfaces. Restaurants also updated floorplans to ensure social distancing of at least six feet between guests while in a restaurant.
The NRA’s letter to the NGA comes as a growing number of states look to escalate their mitigation efforts aimed at slowing the virus. On Nov. 17 Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced additional restrictions on casinos, retailers and other businesses. These additional restrictions come after he halted indoor dining a few weeks ago. A few days earlier, on Nov. 15, Michigan health officials announced a three-week pause that seeks to limit indoor social gatherings and group activities. In Washington state, Governor Jay Inslee issued a broad order that impacts restaurants, too.
In New York City, operators who were finally able to welcome guests back into their dining rooms at the end of September at 25% capacity are now bracing for another order that could shut down indoor dining. While it has been a savior for many restaurants in the Big Apple, earlier this week, New York City imposed additional restrictions on outdoor dining that has left some operators scrambling.
As the shutdowns occur, a growing number of restaurant and bar operators continue to come to terms with the notion that they lose less money by closing indefinitely than by trying to stay open and operating with the heightened safety restrictions. That was the case with The Hopleaf, a Chicago restaurant and bar known for its vast Belgian beer collection. “It’s going to be a long, cold winter and we just hope to ride it out,” owner Michael Roper told Block Club Chicago, a local nonprofit new organization.
In addition, some larger operators are clearly preparing for significantly difficult times. For example, multiconcept operator Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises gave notice to the State of Illinois that the company could lay off more than 1,000 employees from 25 restaurants. This came a few weeks after Lettuce Entertain You shared how it had invested in air filtration systems to make dining safer for guests.