Working Our Way Back to Normalcy: How Reopening Has Affected the Industry

Dale J. Venturini
President/CEO, RI Hospitality Association

Just a few short months ago, industry workers, operators and stakeholders were jumping for joy when Rhode Island’s Governor Daniel McKee announced the full reopening of the state’s economy with little-to-no COVID-19 restrictions. Masks were taken off and restaurants, bars, hotels, and other businesses were permitted to return to full capacity. Since then, things have been as close to “normal” as they have been in the last year and a half, yet many of our industry’s businesses are still suffering. From the ongoing worker shortage to supply chain issues and rising prices, the rapid spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, especially among unvaccinated individuals, and the unpopular allocation of the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) “Restaurant Revitalization Fund” to businesses across Rhode Island, what was meant to be the end of the darkest chapter in our industry’s history has quickly become a stressful continuation of what we have been facing for the last 19 months.

With regard to the “Restaurant Revitalization Fund,” there has been nothing but confusion since the program was first introduced. In my 33 years at the Rhode Island Hospitality Association (RIHA), I have never seen such divisiveness within the industry. While competition is natural, it has quickly evolved into combativeness and that has had a truly negative impact on something our industry prides itself on - a strong culture of community. Truthfully, we have not gotten a sense as to why some businesses received money and why others did not, nor do we know how or why the SBA determined how much money to give the businesses that did receive funding. What we do know is that our restaurants need support from the government to recover this year and to stay in business going forward. While we do not have any answers at the moment, we are working with a variety of partners on legislation that would make more funding available, but we need time to formulate that plan and execute it.

As COVID-19 cases start to increase again, this time as a result of the Delta variant’s spread, many of our industry’s workers and its customers are concerned about the lack of clear direction and mitigation. Restaurants, hotels and other industry businesses are in a position of making judgment calls on reinstating mask mandates and reintroducing physical distancing to protect themselves, their employees and their consumers. Obviously, businesses are stuck between a rock and a hard place – scaling back their operations by reintroducing capacity limits hurts their bottom lines, and once again making masks mandatory might alienate customers and employees, which few businesses can afford to lose right now, who prefer the comfort of an uncovered face.

Throughout the pandemic, Rhode Island’s hospitality industry has been the target of strict oversight and a revolving door of restrictions, yet our operators and employees have responded with grace and understanding each step of the way. As we approach year two of the pandemic, we are exhausted and disappointed and rather than using our energy to focus on the real threat, which is the virus and its new variants, we are beginning to turn on one another. As one of the leading voices in our industry, I will continue to advocate for change, relief, and guidance, but I, and the team at RIHA alone cannot make everything better. It is up to each of us, top-to-bottom, to be civil and compassionate, and to do our part to help end this nightmare…our industry depends on it.