More than one-third of California’s 76,000 eating establishments will never open their doors again and reopening the rest will prove to be difficult. Many of the state’s 1.8 million restaurant workers may look for more stable employment and establishments are already finding it hard to handle the increased business without more employees.
This situation is repeating itself across the country as the restaurant industry struggles with the new business realities. Many of the improvements made during the pandemic such as outdoor seating and curbside delivery will remain. But enticing workers to come back is more than just stopping unemployment benefits, say industry leaders who testified before a California Senate hearing.
With infections dwindling, vaccinations increasing and a positivity rate below 1%, officials say California is on track to lift most remaining restrictions on June 15.
Yet many restaurants are struggling to serve the customers already allowed under current capacity limits because of a lack of staff, the committee said.
It’s the same story across the country and not only the restaurant industry is affected. States are now offering bounties to employees to go to work, which raises the question: Why pay them to stay at home in the first place?
Potential employees may be able to make ends meet with unemployment and federal stimulus benefits instead of going back to work, it said in its report. Some may fear for their safety during the pandemic, while others may want “more stable career paths” after being repeatedly furloughed.
“Right now we’re just at the beginning of feeling this crunch,” said Matthew Sutton, California Restaurant Association senior vice president for government affairs and public policy.
Indeed, the industry said it would take 2-3 years before they achieved employment levels seen before the pandemic hit.
But there may be other, more permanent changes driven by customers. There are going to be fewer people going out to eat in the future with more carryout and delivery meals being made.
The questions about how the lockdown was handled continue to be asked as politicians try to avoid answering them. How necessary was it to limit outdoor seating? Why was the policy so inconsistent and so arbitrary?
In hindsight, the state lacked evidence to back up its decision to close outdoor dining and that rationale “was not effectively communicated,” said Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis, though he said the evidence of virus transmissions during indoor dining was much more clear.
With no time to collect data on the risk of transmissions from open air contact, health officials had to use their best judgment at the time but now understand that the risk of outdoor transmission is low, said Willis and California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health executive director Justin Malan.
“We may not have had all the right answers … but remember, this was a novel coronavirus,” said Malan. “We didn’t have a blueprint on how to respond to this.”
And questions about reopening on June 15 persist. If the policy is the same as the CDC’s, how will employees know whether someone who walks in maskless has been vaccinated? Will vaccine passports be seen as necessary after all?
One thing is sure, waiters and waitresses are not going to act as the vaccine police. So the state is either going to have to decide to trust the people or not trust anyone at all.
The same will be true for movie theaters, athletic events, concerts, even outdoor fairs, and music festivals. People are either going to congregate freely or not. If they are, there’s no way to enforce a masking rule on people who haven’t been vaccinated.
Slowly, reluctantly, authorities are loosening pandemic controls on the public. But one thing they apparently will never do is trust the people to make their own decisions on how to stay safe.