Editors’ Roundtable: Will the Delta variant hurt the recovery?

RB editors give their views on the latest surge of coronavirus infections and its potential to limit the restaurant industry’s recovery.
restaurants facemask mandates
Photograph: Shutterstock

Editors note: Every so often, Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Maze gets down from his perch and demands his editors answer some question. Today he wants to know about the potential for more economic restrictions due to the latest coronavirus surge.

JM: We’ve spent the past year and a half fighting our way through the coronavirus pandemic. The economy is normalizing. People are spending a lot of money at restaurants. People are ditching masks. Some folks are returning to work. In-person meetings are being scheduled.

And yet we are watching as this so-called Delta variant of the coronavirus is leading to a fourth COVID surge. States like Florida, Arkansas and Missouri are reporting thousands of new cases every day. Every state is seeing an increase in cases. Hospitalizations are up. Deaths are likely to follow.

Here’s my question to you Peter Romeo: Will this hurt the industry’s recovery? It’s entirely possible that consumers watch this happening and cease going out to casual dining restaurants and start ordering more delivery again.

Then again, we’re all really tired of the pandemic. Governments don’t seem all that eager to impose new restrictions.

What do you think? Are we in for another round of restrictions—either required by governments or by the consumers themselves?

PR: The new surge is already driving people away from restaurants, but they’re not the customers. The complication is that it gives employees another reason to work in a different field—one where they’re not dealing so closely with so many people. And they don’t want to be plunged back into the rock-and-a-hard place position of having to goad customers to wear masks again. Many areas are recommending that face coverings be worn in public places again, and restaurants are listening because they want the staff and guests to feel safe.

Plus, we’re seeing a rise in instances of places closing because employees were stricken with the new variant.  Those operations are losing significant sales opportunities.

Ironically, customers seem undeterred by the spike, or at least that’s what we’re hearing from casual chains, the segment I cover. They report that any fears, at least at present, are being overridden by a strong desire to socialize and get out of the house. The upshot is that the industry will be caught again in a pinch between customers wanting to spend and not having enough employees to meet that soaring demand.

But, no, I don’t think we’ll see a return of facemask mandates. It’s just too controversial.

Heather Lalley, as the mother of two children, one of them under the age that qualifies for vaccination, do you anticipate the family will dine out less? And what do you see on your beat, emerging chains and independent groups?

HL: I’m a pretty risk-averse person who hardly left the house from March 2020 until just a couple of months ago. Freedom has been wonderful! I’ve been eating at restaurants (both inside and outside), taking some little road trips, going to some concerts, and generally enjoying vaxxed life with my friends and two kids.

Looming in the background of that little taste of freedom, though, is the knowledge that my 10-year-old daughter is too young to get vaccinated. But I wasn’t super anxious about that … until our virus rates here in Chicago started inching up significantly.

And next weekend, the city is set to host Lollapalooza—a massive music festival that typically draws hundreds of thousands of fans from around the country and the world. The festival itself is outside, but there are after-shows at clubs and, of course, attendees will be flooding the city’s bars and restaurants.

That’s enough to keep me up at night and keep our pod out of potentially risky indoor situations for now, while these new variants are surging.

The restaurants I cover, from fast casuals to small chains to independents, appear to be barreling ahead with their growth plans undaunted. But, if this country can’t make some significant progress on changing the hearts and minds of the unvaccinated, I think the restaurant industry is in for another terrifying reckoning with this virus.

How about you, Joe Guszkowski? How concerned are you about the impact of this new wave of cases on restaurants? As our resident tech expert, are you seeing any possible solutions or aids out in the marketplace?

JG: To answer your first question: I’m not that concerned, for two reasons.

One: I think restaurants have learned a lot during the pandemic. Those that survived had to weather at least one complete dining room shutdown and three COVID-19 surges. They did that most likely by leaning on technology and finding new ways to reach their customers and remain relevant to them. If rising case counts do start to impact diners’ behavior, those survivors will be well-prepared to get through it.

Two—and excuse me for digging deep to find a silver lining in this awfulness, but—some restaurants (and their workers) could probably use a break. Everything I’ve seen suggests that customers have been returning to dining rooms in overwhelming numbers while also continuing to order takeout at a high clip. I’m not sure restaurants were completely prepared for that. Obviously, no one wants to go back to the shutdowns of 2020. But a short-term throttling of traffic might give some operations a much-needed chance to regroup.

What do you think Pat Cobe? Am I being too optimistic?

PG: Perhaps, Joe. I really think the CDC was too hasty in telling Americans to ditch their masks. It’s not such a big deal to wear a mask indoors, and the alternative of the Delta variant breaking through to even vaccinated people is very scary.

I’m not as risk-averse as Heather—I was dining outside at restaurants last summer and felt very safe. I still prefer to dine outdoors, if possible, because restaurants are really cramming customers inside to make up for over a year of lost revenue. I would be fine wearing a mask when the server comes over to take my order and when I’m not eating or drinking. I’m all for a mask mandate again.

But I do agree with you, Joe, that restaurants could use a break. The labor shortage is forcing some employees to work double shifts, cooks are especially in short supply, and customers are getting more and more cranky when service and food are not up to par. Maybe a little reset would give everyone a chance to take a deep breath and proceed more slowly and cautiously going forward.

It would be devastating to see restaurants forfeit the strong traffic and sales growth they’ve seen lately, and go back to square one. But taking a couple of baby steps back may not be so bad. What do you think, Jonathan?  

JM: I think mask mandates would be fine, and probably necessary, but I doubt we’ll see them. Few people have any stomach to return to the restrictions of the past year. Our political climate is too divisive over these issues.

Our best bet going forward is more vaccinations.

What I would like to see are more concrete actions to push people resistant to the vaccine to get one. While plenty of vaccinated people get coronavirus, the inoculation does a great job preventing hospitalizations and death. And at the end of the day the only way we beat this thing is for enough people to get vaccinated.

That we can’t get that far remains maddening.  

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