California restaurants expect a rebound that will take years

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Nearly a third of California restaurants have closed permanently and two-thirds of workers at least temporarily lost their jobs as the pandemic set in more than a year ago and Governor Gavin Newsom imposed the first lockdown nationwide, a legislative committee reported Tuesday.

Few industries have been more battered than the restaurant industry, which before the pandemic included more than 76,000 restaurant establishments employing 1.8 million people, according to the California Restaurant Association.

But with the shutdown, up to a million of those workers were quickly put on leave or fired, the association told the state’s Senate Special Committee on Emergency Pandemic Response.

“COVID-19 has changed all of our lives, but its impacts have been felt most acutely in the restaurant industry,” said Democratic State Senator Josh Newman, who heads the committee and led the hearing on the matter. “It is clear that the recovery will take time.”

Restaurant employment is still down a quarter from before the pandemic, according to the latest figures from the state’s employment development department.

Industry executives have said they fear a shortage of workers will close more establishments as the economy reopens.

The state initially shut down non-essential businesses, although it allowed dining establishments to continue offering take-out. Its color-coded tier system for reopening the economy then allowed restaurants to offer outdoor seating or indoor dining at different capacity levels as coronavirus cases abated. .

With fewer infections, increased vaccinations, and a positivity rate of less than 1%, officials say California is on track to lift most remaining restrictions on June 15.

Still, many restaurants are struggling to serve customers already licensed within current capacity limits due to understaffing, the committee said.

Prospective employees might be able to make ends meet with federal unemployment and stimulus benefits instead of returning to work, he said in his report. Some may fear for their safety during the pandemic, while others may want “more stable career paths” after being repeatedly laid off.

“Right now, we’re just starting to feel that tightening,” said Matthew Sutton, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the California Restaurant Association.

Without providing details, he said lawmakers may want to use some of the state’s massive budget surplus to create an incentive program for employees to return to work. Other witnesses on the committee said they hoped for more direct help, either through stimulus or tax breaks.

The industry is expected to eventually rebound, the Restaurant Association reported, creating another 160,000 jobs by 2029, for a total of nearly 2 million statewide.

“This is a two to three year takeover,” Kevin McCarney, founder and general manager of Poquito Más restaurant in Southern California, told the committee. Meanwhile, restaurateurs said they needed to recoup the income they lost while their fixed costs like rent and insurance continued.

“It’s not a given that we’re going to survive,” said Laurie Thomas, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association and owner of two popular restaurants. “We’ve all been digging so much in the past 15 months.”

With no details from the state when the June 15 reopens, she fears restaurants will be allowed to return to full capacity only with vaccinated customers, letting their staff become “the new identity police” supposedly. check immunization cards – a role she and others have said they can’t handle.

Several witnesses expressed frustration with the state’s changing closure rules or lack of information on assistance programs, although Greg Dulan, owner of Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen in Los Angeles County, said that the state-funded Great Plates food delivery program had saved his business during the pandemic.

Abrupt shutdown orders from health officials did not give restaurateurs time to downsize or distribute food, drinks and other supplies they had just acquired, witnesses said at the time. of the audience.

In retrospect, the state lacked evidence to support its decision to shut down alfresco dining and that rationale “was not communicated effectively,” said Dr Matt Willis, Marin County public health official. , although he said the evidence for virus transmissions during indoor meals was much clearer.

With no time to collect data on the risk of open-air contact transmission, health officials had to use their best judgment at the time, but now understand that the risk of transmission to the exterior is weak, said Willis and the director of the California Conference of Environmental Health Directors. director Justin Malan.

“We may not have had all of the right answers… but remember this was a new coronavirus,” Malan said. “We didn’t have a plan of how to respond to this.”

Restaurants have said they have adapted to a new business model on the fly during the pandemic.

They could offer curbside or off-site deliveries, or expand to outdoor spaces such as patios, sidewalks, parking lots and closed streets with local approval – innovations that can last for a long time. time.

Some disposable menus adopted or that customers could consult on their smartphones. And Sutton said restaurants improvements to their indoor airflow and filtering will stay in the long run.


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