Despite several bright lights emerging on the horizon in the form of soon-to-be-released coronavirus vaccines, the country continues its uneasy and very uneven approach to dealing with the pandemic.
As of Nov. 23, seven states have rolled back their reopening efforts and are now considered mostly closed, per a New York Times report. Another 12 states have taken a mixed approach to their reopening efforts while the remainder of the states remain mostly open, per the Times. This regional outlook goes a long way in shaping consumers’ outlook about a variety of things related to the virus, most notably using restaurants. This fragmented approach can also lead to plenty of confusion among consumers.
Since the dawn of the pandemic, restaurants and bars have been the first place many leaders of state and local governments turn to when trying to slow the spread of COVID-19 in their communities. Early on, the industry accepted its fate, but as of late the National Restaurant Association and various state and local restaurant associations have started to push back against mitigations.
And lately governors in some states have begun to update their talking points, citing smaller gatherings are now driving the surge and have adjusted their mitigations to reflect this position despite there being some question as to whether the data exists to support this theory. Vermont, for example, now forbids neighbors from a socially distant walk while wearing masks, yet still permits indoor dining.
In other words, nine months into the pandemic and the nation remains in constant flux about how to move forward. That state of flux is reflective when looking at the state of the operator community on a more national level. Nine months into the pandemic, 28% of operators say they completely closed and reopened their businesses and 2% stayed open at first but then closed, per Chicago-based research firm Datassential. In addition, 10% of operators have closed and reopened multiple times. And while 55% of operators have remained open in some form the entire time, Datassential reports 5% of operators have permanently closed.
Operators, typically an optimistic lot in normal times, generally seem to have a decent outlook about the future. For example, 30% of operators classify themselves as cautiously optimistic about the future and expect their businesses to come through this stronger, per Datassential. And 58% of operators are worried but fairly confident about the future of their businesses. Still, 12% of operators are very nervous and are worried about their businesses’ ability to pull through.
Despite the pandemic raging onward with confusing and often seemingly contradicting mitigations, though, consumer sentiment toward dining in restaurants continues to hold steady. That’s the good news. The bad news is that more than 44% of consumers still do not feel comfortable using restaurants and will continue to avoid doing so, per a Datassential study. This represents a modest 2% increase since the end of October. In addition, 30% of consumers report being nervous about eating in restaurants but continue doing so and 26% have no qualms about using restaurants whatsoever.
Along those lines, 61% of consumers anticipate COVID-19’s spread to worsen in the coming months and 64% anticipate staying home more in the coming months to minimize their risk of getting sick, per Datassential. That said, 62% of consumers say they understand this will make it more difficult for restaurants in their area to stay open.
The short of it is help, in the form of a vaccine, stimulus or likely both, can’t come for restaurants soon enough as a long, difficult winter looms on the horizon. In the meantime, the industry will need to continue to get creative and embrace some of the more tried-and-true service modes that most consumers deem safe.
While it will be difficult for operators to replace the sales that the holiday season typically generates, through some creativity they might not be shut out entirely. For example, 26% of consumers plan to get parts of their holiday meal from a restaurant and another 23% anticipate ordering a meal kit from a restaurant, per Datassential. Operators who can embrace these fast-growing nontraditional opportunities will have a better chance of weathering the challenges in front of them.