The COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis has radically reshaped the dining experience and caused a devasting impact on a once booming industry. A September survey by the National Restaurant Association found that 43 percent of full-service operators and 33 percent of limited service operations do not expect to still be in business in six months of things continue as they are. And restaurants are anticipating a total loss of $240 billion this year as a result of the pandemic.
In many ways, the ingenuity of owners and managers has enabled many restaurants to survive this prolonged crisis. As restaurants have introduced innovative solutions to continue serving their customers, such as curb-side pick-up, delivery and drive thru options, or expanded their business to grocery services, the industry has seen marginal gains since the spring. But it has not been enough.
The unfortunate reality is that it is unlikely the industry will be able to bounce back in the coming months. And the restaurant experience when we finally emerge from this pandemic will likely look much different than it did before.
So, what can restaurants at this point in this crisis?
Take Risks Seriously
The US response to COVID-19 pandemic is, in my opinion, the single worst handled crisis in our nation’s history. At the time of writing this, more than 10 million Americans have contracted COVID-19, and nearly a quarter million people have died. And this could have been avoided.
A study published in October by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness found that between 130,000 to 210,000 American fatalities would have been avoided if the nation had consistently applied policies equivalent to what other developed democracies had done.
A foundational principle of crisis response is to understand the scope and specifically the risks that a crisis represents, and then to do all that is necessary to mitigate those risks. The longer it takes to do that, the worse the crisis will get.
As we have seen, the federal government, in particular the current occupant of the White House, failed to take the risks of the pandemic seriously. And President Trump continues to diminish or ignore the risks of COVD-19, even as infection rates spike and more members of his administration test positive for the virus.
The changing of administrations may turn the tide of the country’s response, but we have quite some time before President-Elect Biden can enact meaningful change. In the meantime, the continued lack of a coherent federal response before the inauguration will likely to cause even more harm.
As cases surge across the country, restaurants need to take the risks of COVID-19 seriously. And that means recognizing that half measures won’t work in the long run.
While it may be tempting to continue indoor dining as we head into winter, the growing infection rate, as well as sporadic mask-wearing and social distancing policies across the country, will likely make indoor dining less safe, putting both customers and employees at risk. Restaurants need to recognize and take these risks seriously, and to be prepared to take decisive action early to protect their customers and their employees.
Foresee the Foreseeable
Many crises are not foreseeable. But months into this crisis, there are some thing we can foresee.
We are now in the third wave of the pandemic. In early November, we saw back-to-back record highs for daily cases. The likelihood, if things remain unchanged, is that we will reach a quarter million deaths by Thanksgiving.
President-Elect Joe Biden has signaled that he will take a far more aggressive approach to COVID, and has begun revealing a national strategy. In his acceptance speech, Biden declared, “We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality, or relish life’s most precious moments… until we get this virus under control.” He continued, “I will spare no effort — or commitment — to turn this pandemic around.”
Restaurants need to be prepared for Biden to enact some form of restrictions for as long as necessary to control the virus. That means restaurants have time to prepare what will foreseeably be one of Biden’s first acts as president.
Take the Pain
No one wants the country to shut down. There is a real and lived cost for all of us in this moment of collective crisis, one that will be felt for years to come. But one of the principles of crisis management is that sometimes we need to take the pain in the short-term in order to thrive in the long-term. This is one of those times.
Restaurants have already taken the brunt of the pain during this pandemic. And previous governmental relief for the restaurant industry has fallen short.
However, restaurants will need to be prepared to take the pain of drastically reducing their operations again, of furloughing their employees, or of shutting down for some period of time. This is a difficult decision for any business make. But it is the only way that we as a nation will make it through this crisis, and ultimately the only way the restaurant industry will be able to truly thrive again.
As restaurants will need to make difficult, but necessary, decisions to protect their customers and staff, the restaurant industry can also be proactive in fighting for relief. Since June, the National Restaurant Association, the Independent Restaurant Association, and other have been actively lobbying for expanded relief for the industry. And as the government transitions in January, the industry may find new allies to aid this cause and ensure the long-term viability of the restaurant industry going forward.
Plan for the Future
While it will likely be necessary to take the pain in the short-term, restaurants can also plan for the long-term.
In crisis management, we know that in every crisis there is opportunity. COVID-19 has changed nearly every part of our society and daily lives. As we come out of this crisis, the restaurant industry, like many others, will not look the same as it did before the pandemic. But that does not mean it cannot as good as it was before. Or that it can be even better.
The industry has already demonstrated its resiliency in the creative ways that restaurants have adapted their business models to survive during the pandemic. Should a national shut down happen, restaurants can use that time to be proactive and plan how they will rebuild after the pandemic has ended.
What will the restaurant and dining experience be after COVID-19? Restaurants can take this time to re-imagine what this experience can be like in a post-COVID-19 world, and then organize their resources to re-invent and re-invigorate both their companies and the industry as a whole.
The restaurant industry has a long road ahead to get through this crisis. But by making smart decisions in a timely way, restaurants can get through this crisis – and help us all do the same.