My city began to reopen this week … sort of. Down in the French Quarter, waiters at the classic restaurant Galatoire's moved all but 12 of their tables out of their main dining room and donned masks and gloves. A few blocks away, however, Antoine's and Arnaud's remain shuttered, plywood covering their windows. The historic Dooky Chase's has reopened, but Wine Spectator Grand Award winner Commander's Palace continues to focus on food to-go for now. New Orleans is awakening, slowly.
As of this week, all 50 states have begun some degree of emerging from their COVID-19 shutdowns. In many communities, restaurants are reopening their dining rooms, albeit at limited capacity. Wineries in some states, including Oregon, are reopening their tasting rooms.
But restaurateurs and vintners are facing a difficult choice. Is it better to reopen and put themselves, their employees and customers at potential health risk? Or is it better to stay shuttered, rely on takeout and online orders and risk bankruptcy? My colleague Aaron Romano found a variety of opinions in Oregon—some wineries have opened their tasting rooms, training staff on mask and sanitizer protocol. Others remain shut and continue to focus on virtual wine tastings and online sales.
My colleague Julie Harans found the same story with restaurants. Some continue to focus on food to-go, while others reopen.
Unfortunately, there is no correct choice here. It has been clear for weeks now that COVID-19 is a double-edged sword of pestilence and poverty. And across America, everyone is having to choose how much of each danger they are willing to tolerate. As of today, more than 38 million people have filed for unemployment benefits. And at least 93,000 Americans have died.
Sadly, the debate over whether it's safe to reopen has become not a scientific analysis of the situation in each community but a partisan struggle. And because of that, every American is having to decide on their own, What am I comfortable with? How do I think I should keep my family safe?
But dine-in or to-go is a false choice. I've spoken to numerous restaurateurs and wine directors about the dilemma. If they continue takeout service, they can maybe pull in 10 percent of their usual revenue. If they bring in their staff and do what it takes to make dine-in service possible, they can maybe pull in 25 percent.
Earlier this week, several members of the restaurant industry, ranging from the CEO of Burger King to Landry's CEO Tilman Fertitta to chef Thomas Keller and Galatoire's CEO Melvin Rodrigue, sat down with President Donald Trump at the White House to discuss the challenges restaurants face. They detailed how an industry that employed 12 million people in March has been forced to lay off half of them since then. That's nearly three times more jobs than any other industry, according to the National Restaurant Association.
"Restaurants are the cornerstone of so many communities," Rodrigue told the president. "We rely on social interaction. So it makes us really unique that we were hit hard quickly, and it's going to make our comeback really difficult."
The restaurateurs explained how the main federal program for helping small businesses, the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), has not proven an effective tool. The benefits last just eight weeks, and they primarily help companies keep staff employed. But with restaurants just beginning to reopen at 25 percent occupancy, it is not helpful.
Many people hope that the economy will recover quickly as we reopen, that the number of cases won't spike as people return to work and shopping and eating out. I pray that's true.
But there's plenty of uncertainty and fear out there. A vaccine is months away. Medical experts have many valid concerns. Most states have not met the minimum safety thresholds of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to reopen. And most Americans are still not ready to start dining out.
That means restaurants need federal support for the foreseeable future. There are multiple ideas being discussed in Washington, from modifications to PPP that would make it more useful to restaurants to a proposed bill in Congress dubbed the Restaurants Act. Its grants would cover the difference between a restaurant's 2019 revenue and anticipated 2020 revenue, and could be used to cover payroll, benefits, mortgage, rent, protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
During past crises, America has bailed out airlines and auto manufacturers, banks and other industries. They were dubbed too big to fail. Let's recognize that our restaurant industry, from the mom-and-pop diners to the first-class temples of fine cuisine and everyone in between, is too important to lose. Let's support the people who serve us with warm hospitality, often for little pay. It's time to save our restaurants before it's too late.