Editorial: The time has come to rescue our restaurateurs
We’re now nearly six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s beginning to get hard to even remember what life was like before the virus upended our lives.
My daily routine, like most people I believe, turned from leaving the house every morning for a 40-minute commute to the office, filling my day with meetings, events and trips to the breakroom, and trying to get out the door by 5 p.m. to beat the worst of the traffic home.
With our work now primarily done remotely, my commute is from the kitchen to my home office. The days can begin to blend together if I don’t set a schedule for myself to get out of the house as much as possible.
But my family is among the lucky ones, as my wife and I still have jobs to go to and a daycare open for our daughter. Everyone isn’t so lucky in Delaware, however, and we try to remind ourselves of that fact.
As of Aug. 15, nearly 41,000 people in Delaware were still claiming unemployment benefits and more than 130,000 have filed for assistance at some point during the pandemic. Another 8,000 self-employed workers have obtained assistance through the special federal program set up for them.
Hardest hit among those workers are the men and women who staff the restaurants and bars that have been our weekly haunts, special occasion hosts and culinary helpers for those short on time. The Delaware Restaurant Association (DRA) recently released its State of the Industry report to remind us about just how dire their situation is today.
Through July, the state restaurant industry has lost $700 million in sales revenue and 81% of DRA members say they expect to operate at a financial loss for the remainder of 2020. That’s a grim prediction as restaurants draw closer to the wintertime when sales historically slow down.
That unprecedented lack of patronage combined with mounting costs of doing business due to design changes and frequent cleaning required during the pandemic could lead to as many as one
in three Delaware restaurants closing their doors, the DRA estimated.
The businesses at risk aren’t just the mom-and-pop operations, but restaurants of all stripes. Just take a look at some of the most recent ones to call it quits: Panera Bread in Newark, Crossroads Restaurant in Milltown, JB Dawson’s and Michael’s Restaurant in Christiana, and De La Coeur, Sugarfoot Fine Foods and Joe’s Crab Shack in Wilmington, among others.
“On a surface level, people look and can see that restaurants are open, but they’re fighting for every customer and every dollar that they earn at this point,” Carrie Leishman, DRA president and CEO, told Delaware Business Times.
Gianmarco Martuscelli, owner of Klondike Kate’s in Newark, recently told me that the Main Street mainstay was lucky to be serving 20 lunches right now, when it was serving four to five times that many before the pandemic. It’s led him to consider scrapping lunch service altogether – something that many owners are considering throughout the state, he said.
Despite that financial pressure, Delaware’s restaurants have been doing all they can to abide by the guidelines put forward by public health officials, including reducing their capacity, opening outdoor seating and enacting facemask policies. The DRA consulted with food safety-certified experts to conduct 75 informal compliance checks at restaurants throughout the state in late July and early August. The inspectors found that 94% of restaurants had tables properly spaced 6 feet apart, 87% had signage regarding COVID-19 and 84% had proper face coverings for staff and customers. Overall, inspectors said they personally would eat at 92% of the restaurants they reviewed.
Fears that dining out would lead to outbreaks of the virus have also seem to be overblown. Contact tracing data from Maryland and Michigan have both shown that private gatherings are the largest risk – likely due to the lack of oversight and regulation – and restaurants have seen far fewer connected outbreaks than construction sites, schools, offices and manufacturing plants.
Anyone who knows someone in the industry can tell you that the stress of trying to keep these ships afloat is at an all-time high. Add to that the uncertainty regarding assistance from the federal and state governments and it’s a miracle that more of them don’t simply throw in the towel.
We applaud the Delaware Division of Small Business’s new DE Relief grant program, which can provide some relief to businesses that have eligible pandemic-spurred expenses, but we question why Congress hasn’t reopened the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, which was able to offset payroll costs for at least 550 state restaurants but closed to applicants Aug. 8. The program had a congressional authorization of about $650 billion, but only allocated about $525 billion before its deadline expired. That means some $125 billion in aid is sitting and awaiting another use while restaurant owners around the country crunch their books to see if they can continue to keep the lights on.
Congress needs to reopen the PPP and allow second forgivable loans to businesses in industry codes disproportionately affected by the pandemic, including hospitality, arts and entertainment,
retail, and personal care services.
We’ve applauded the courage of our front-line health care workers throughout the pandemic, but it’s time for us to support our restaurateurs who have been on the front line of this economic collapse.