By John Haughey
The Center Square
August 26, 2021
Just as post-pandemic normalcy appeared within reach, the delta variant that fueled a resurgent COVID-19 pandemic this summer is changing consumer behavior “in a manner that is beginning to put acute pressure back on the restaurant industry,” the National Restaurant Association (NRA) is warning.
In a letter Monday to Congressional leadership, the NRA and state restaurant associations, including the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association (FRLA), are calling for “swift replenishment” of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF) managed by the U.S. Small Business Association (SBA).
The $28.6 billion RFF, signed into law by President Joe Biden in March as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), provided relief to more than 100,000 restaurants and other food and beverage businesses across the nation.
When the program was discontinued in July, there were more than 177,000 restaurants with pending RFF applications before the SBA, including more than 11,500 Florida restaurants with “stabilization funding requests” totaling nearly $2.7 billion, according to the FRLA.
“There are thousands of Florida small business owners stuck in limbo waiting to find out if Congress will act to provide the stability they need to make it through this new pandemic threat and into the future,” FRLA President/CEO Carol Dover said in a Monday news release, referring to several proposals to allocate $60 billion to replenish the RFF.
“The rise of coronavirus variants like delta threaten to push these restaurants closer to permanently closing their doors,” Dover continued. “It’s time for Congress to step in and fulfill the promise of the RRF.”
According to the FRLA, about 17,200 Florida restaurant operators applied for RFF grants totaling $4 billion, but only 5,700 received $1.3 billion from the program.
The 11,000 remaining pending applications have created a “significant needs gap for thousands of restaurants, of nearly $2.7 billion,” FRLA Press Secretary Ashley Chambers told Florida Politics.
The NRA’s nationwide online survey of 1,000 adults conducted Aug. 13-15 found a majority have changed their dining behavior in response to the resurgent pandemic.
The change “is beginning to put acute pressure back on the restaurant industry. This faltering consumer confidence comes on top of restaurant labor costs at a 10-year high, increased food and supply prices, continued labor shortage issues and crushing long-term debt loads for countless restaurant owners,” the NRA states.
The survey found six-in-10 adults have “changed their restaurant use due to the rise in the delta variant” with 19% of adults no longer going out to restaurants, 9% canceling plans to go out to a restaurant, 37% who’ve ordered takeout or delivery instead of being seated in a restaurant and 19% who have chosen to sit outside instead of inside when going out to a restaurant.
“We concluded that a majority of consumers have changed their dining behavior in a manner that is beginning to put acute pressure back on the restaurant industry,” NRA Executive Vice President Sean Kennedy said. “This development comes on top of food and labor costs that are increasing at their fastest pace in several years, continued indoor capacity limits in 11 states, and crushing long-term debt loads for countless restaurant owners.”
Florida’s restaurants took it on the chin during late-March through May 2020 statewide lockdowns that idled much of Florida’s $90 billion leisure/hospitality industry, forcing 1.3 million Floridians into furloughs or layoffs.
According to Florida Chamber of Commerce chief economist Dr. Jerry Parrish, the state has “recovered” 950,000 jobs with 63% of the 315,800 that remain “lost” since the pandemic – or approximately 194,000 jobs – are in the state economy’s leisure and hospitality sector.