Reopening the Hospitality Industry

Dale J. Venturini
President/CEO, RI Hospitality Association

As I write this column, we are starting to see some states in the nation undertake partial reopening plans for recreation and for business. Notably in the south, Georgia and Tennessee were among the first in the region to open up restaurants to diners. But what is it going to take for our industry to return to some sense of normalcy?

The balance between ensuring public safety and giving businesses the green light to operate is arguably the most important national decision. This carefully-considered proposition can have dire consequences if a state’s leadership moves too quickly and too presumptively to push the business accelerator early. Yet, across the U.S. we are seeing increasingly-vocal constituents who are storming state capitals to demand that we return to business as usual; who feel that enough is enough. In at least one New England state, a restaurant has reopened of its own accord, violating that state’s mandate to remain closed. Hundreds of customers flocked to it– some in masks, but many without.

The overall impact of this pandemic to our industry is profound. There is almost no way to accurately calculate the loss; between jobs, distributors, farms, allied services, lost sales, sales, meals/beverage, and lodging tax, it is undoubtedly significant. Here in Rhode Island, restaurants and hotels contributed close to $300 million in taxes in 2019. That puts the hospitality industry a second close to the gaming industry, Rhode Island’s largest source of revenue. The bottom line is that these are big decisions being made with a huge amount at stake.

The good news is that pent-up demand for dining remains strong. According to weekly surveys from the National Restaurant Association, six in 10 adults say they ordered dinner takeout or delivery from a restaurant in the last week – a level that has held steady over the past two months. And, takeout or delivery lunch purchases were made by roughly four in 10 adults in each of the last nine weeks. Fifty-two percent of adults say they are not ordering takeout or delivery from restaurants as often as they would like. And, it’s not just the younger generation, 58% percent of baby boomers say they would like to order takeout or delivery more frequently right now.

I am hopeful that by the time this column publishes, we will have full-service restaurants up and running, but as full-service restaurants begin to come back online, there are many factors that restaurant owners need to consider and plan for. Most crucial is that owners follow established guidelines for reopening safely to the letter of the law. This can vary from state to state and includes safe food handling, cleaning and sanitizing, employee hygiene, mask and glove usage, and social distancing to name a few.

Customers will likely be wary about full-service dining and they need to feel safe and secure. Proper restaurant signage about how businesses are protecting them is crucial. At the RI Hospitality Association, we are currently asking members to undertake a Restaurant Pledge – it’s a promise to customers that restaurants are doing everything the correct way for a safe reopening and a request to customers to use good judgement and not dine-in if they do not feel well for any reason.

Finally, as business resumes, know that it will not look the way it did prior to our nationwide shutdowns and that our industry will need to slowly, methodically and carefully ramp up to ensure success. As always, check with your local restaurant association for its reopening best practices to ensure that your business will open successfully. For more information, please visit the Rhode Island Hospitality Association’s website.