Editor’s note: This story is based on a webinar for the Restaurant Recovery Summit brought to you by Restaurant Business parent company Winsight. You can register for the summit and check out all of the events at restaurantrecoverysummit.com.
Restaurant-industry advocates are pressing federal and state officials to classify foodservice employees as one of the groups that should get early access to the COVID-19 vaccine, arguing that the individuals have been designated as essential workers and expected to risk their personal safety to provide Americans with meals.
“We’ve certainly asked for that, with a lot of the work we’ve done in Washington and certainly within the states,” Tom Bene, CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said during the Restaurant Recovery Summit, a virtual event where industry executives share their strategies and tactics for weathering the pandemic. “We continue to suggest that, as an important industry, those workers should be part of the food-supply-chain workforce that gets vaccinated early. Whether that happens in every state or every situation, we don’t know yet.”
He also aired the view that restaurants and other employers should be spared the expense of paying for the vaccines. ‘Our sense is that the government should pay for all that,” Bene said during an interview with Restaurant Business Editor in Chief Jonathan Maze. “It doesn’t matter what industry you’re working in or what you’re doing.”
He noted that near-term inoculations of the industry’s workforce would add considerable momentum to the nation’s economic recovery while bolstering public safety.
“Creating that environment for our industry would be positive,” Bene said. “We want to do the right thing so guests feel comfortable and safe.”
He commented that the industry has embraced the safety measures that officials at all levels have recommended or mandated, from wearing masks to using gloves and dividers between tables. That’s why, he said, the industry is so frustrated by the recent dining-room shutdowns and stricter indoor seating limits that have recently worsened the industry’s economic plight.
“All the things that were suggested we have done as an industry. Yet we continue to get called out, singled out, as one of those potential areas of creating the spread of the virus,” said Bene, who took the top post at the industry’s leading watchdog group about six months ago. “What we have been continually asking is, ‘Share the information, share the data.’ We have no evidence that restaurants are a key contributor to the spread of the virus.”
He voices particularly sharp frustration about the decision of some states, counties and municipalities to discontinue outdoor dining as well as indoor seating in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID. “Certainly everything we’ve heard from everyone is that outdoor activities have been fine ,” said Bene. “It just doesn’t make any sense. We continue to push back on it.”
The former Sysco and PepsiCo executive also voiced frustration with the federal government’s inability to push through more financial relief for the industry, undoubtedly one of the sectors that has been hardest hit by the pandemic. Bene cited new association data that shows restaurants have lost about $215 billion in sales through October, putting it on track to fall $240 billion below where its revenues would have been without the pandemic.
Yet talks between Republicans and Democrats in the association’s hometown of Washington, D.C., have not yielded any relief since the pandemic’s early days, when the omnibus CARES Act provided billions of dollars in aid through such means as the Paycheck Protection Program. “The initial proposal was intended to get the industry through eight weeks,” Bene said. “Nothing has been done since then."
“We will continue to push for legislation, and bipartisan legislation. We think there is a solution here,” he added.
He noted that hopes had been raised by indications from Capital Hill that a bipartisan aid plan is under negotiations. “The optimism is growing, and that is good news,” said Bene. “Having said that, it’s certainly not going to be enough. We definitely need more. Hopefully if we can get through this time, the new administration can push something through in 2021.
During the nearly 30 minute interview, Bene expressed optimism about the incoming Biden administration several times, including the president-elect’s indication that he’ll urge every American to wear a mask for the 100 days following the inauguration. “We think that’s a good thing,” he said. “We want to do the right thing so guests feel comfortable and safe. Once the environment’s right, we’ll have people rushing back to restaurants.”