In late June 2020, New York City restaurant started slowly reopening with outside seating. Many streets have gradually transformed extended into busy sidewalks and by the side of traffic and bike lanes. Personally, it has taken me a while to re-embrace eating out. I have never been a fan of outside seating, especially in the middle of busy streets, where traffic fumes, passers-by, mosquitoes, and the potential for rain or scorching heat can easily ruin a meal. I enjoy eating inside, preferably at the bar, in a corner seat, providing a perfect view of the choreograph performances of servers and patrons. Since the March 2020 shut-down, I have only eaten at three restaurants in the city – all walking distance from my home, offering outside seating in back yard patios or in a quiet side street. While the food taste so much better on site than delivered, the experience is still a reminder that we are in this so-called “new normal.” The host greets you, smiling behind the face covering. Waitstaff quickly brings water, carrying bottles and glasses carefully with plastic gloves, while taking drink orders, wearing a surgical mask. Menus are now replaced by a QRS code for customers to scan and view on their smart phones. Condiments are served in disposable plastic containers. Shared plates have been reduced, alongside other menu modifications.
Outside eating may work for now, but may not hold in late fall and definitely not during the harsh winter months. Indoor dining was originally scheduled for late July as part of NYC’s Phase 4, but it has been postponed. Restrictions were imposed in response to overcrowding outside bars and the increased infection seen in other locations. Indoor dining is yet to be scheduled – there is no Phase 5 in the city’s opening plan. In the meantime, restaurants are trying to figure out how to make indoor dining safe as air circulation is a source of concern, given COVID infection airborne nature. Filters and air circulation systems exist, but the installation of these systems in restaurants may not be practical nor economically feasible. Cash strap restaurateurs speculate about how to make ends meet within diminished seating capacities while dealing with the continuing high cost of rent. Many restaurants have already closed their doors for good, and some suggest that “only 15% of restaurants will be able to stay open if the COVID-19 pandemic lasts six months.” The closings have ripple effects beyond the owners and staff, including decreased business for suppliers, producers, and distributors. According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition,
Independent restaurants directly employ 11 million workers and indirectly employ 5 million more up and down the food and hospitality supply chain. We are small businesses, but we have a big impact on the economy, playing a key role in the restaurant industry, which totals $760 billion in sales annually; about 3.5% of the U.S. GDP.
Non-corporate, independently owned restaurants serve as important venues for social mobility and community economic development. As they fail, larger, corporate restaurants continue to expand, negatively impacting local communities economies and constricting dynamic culinary landscapes.
What can be done? We can start by supporting local, independently owned restaurants through take out, outdoor dining, or delivery (ideally provided by the restaurant and not third parties). Restaurants have also established funds to support their staff, and organizations like World Central Kitchen have engaged restaurants in food distribution efforts. Yet, while these individual actions are important, government action is also needed.
Congress is also moving to pass relief to the sector through the RESTAURANTS Act (The Real Economic Support That Acknowledges Unique Restaurant Assistance Needed To Survive Act of 2020 or the RESTAURANTS Act of 2020). The Act which was introduced in the House on June 15, 2020 by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and on June 18, 2020 in the Senate by Sen. Roger F. Wicker (R-Mississippi), summarized as follows:
This bill temporarily establishes and provides funding for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, from which the Department of the Treasury shall make grants to eligible food and beverage purveyors to cover specified costs. The amount of such a grant shall be reduced by the amount of (1) any emergency grant received for an economic injury disaster loan, or (2) any paycheck protection loan amount forgiven under the Paycheck Protection Program established to support small businesses in response to COVID-19 (i.e., coronavirus disease 2019). For the grant program’s initial period, Treasury must (1) prioritize awarding grants to marginalized and underrepresented communities, and (2) only award grants to eligible food and beverage purveyors with annual revenues of less than $1.5 million. – House summary (H.R.7197)
Both acts sit in Congress waiting for action as I write this blog post. We can do our part by showing our support for this important sector. Take a few minutes to contact your representatives and show your support: https://www.saverestaurants.com/take-action/
Learn more about this campaign here: https://www.saverestaurants.com/resources/
Stay tuned for the upcoming August issue of Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies, featuring my upcoming article discussing restaurants and COVID-19, in relation with my research.