Thursday, June 20, 2024
FoodHotels & Restaurants

Remembering the Early Days of the Pandemic: A Reflection on the Restaurant Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immense impact on the world, and the hospitality industry has been no exception. It’s hard to believe that it was just three years ago when restaurants and bars were forced to temporarily close their doors to on-premise consumption due to the virus’s rapid spread. At the time, the decision to close was a logical action to help protect our communities from the unknown consequences of the deadly virus. But the shutdown also meant that thousands of Rhode Island hospitality workers were suddenly out of work, and the industry would be forever changed.

In those early days of the pandemic, we were all living in a world of unknowns, and beyond the virus, most of us in the hospitality industry were dealing with being out of work. The threat of catching a virus was omnipresent, and people were sick, and people were dying. The world was moving pretty fast, and we were all rolling with it until we figured things out. There was a strange quiet to the world, and it was scary. No one really knew exactly what was going on, but people were looking out for one another, and in those early days, we were heroes.

Despite the challenges, there was help available for those affected. Federal and state unemployment insurance, along with a special COVID benefit, were quickly made available to keep people afloat in the midst of the storm. It gave a sense that people were looking out for one another. Customers were generous and showed their support for the hospitality industry by tipping a little extra, ordering a little more, and sending words of encouragement. For a brief time, they were heroes.

Even as restaurants slowly started opening for takeout and delivery service, the pandemic continued to take its toll on the industry. When the lockdown showed us how vulnerable the industry can be, it pushed a lot of hard-working restaurant people out of the business for good. For some, it wasn’t worth it anymore, so they found a new career. That led to an eventual industry-wide staffing shortage, which created a whole new trove of issues, least of which was the wearing down of those that stuck around. With longer hours over extra shifts, it was a pace for workers that was unsustainable.

There were also tremendous financial pressures on every restaurant owner. Still dealing with losses from the extended shutdowns and partial openings, the industry now faced supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, which were taking food costs to new highs. In a business that was already a challenge to succeed in, it was now harder.

Over the last three years, the hospitality industry has lost a lot of great restaurants to COVID. Even today, when long-established businesses decide to close, it may not be directly because of the pandemic, but you can be sure the struggles of the last three years weighed heavily into their decisions. It’s difficult to fathom what the early days of the pandemic would have been like without assistance.

The restaurant workers who are still at it three years into this pandemic are a hearty bunch. They’ve proven they can do it all. They came back from the shutdown ready to roll, learned how to work with the new regulations, cooked in masks, served guests through plastic dividers, and waited on outdoor tables with temps in the low 40s. They adapted to it all, took on the unpleasantries of those who decided to make the food service industry a battleground for masking regulations, sacrificed their summers to put in double-shifts for their short-staffed restaurants, and stretched their multi-tasking abilities so the restaurant could stay open. They deserve our gratitude for all they’ve done to help this industry survive.

The pandemic has changed the face of the hospitality business forever, and it’s not done yet. It will years before we can accurately measure what the longterm effects on the industry will be. You can throw away any playbooks from 2019 – it’s all different from here on out. For now, as we mark this inauspicious anniversary, let’s try to stay positive and recall the feelings we all shared in those early days. Let’s be safe. Let’s be kind to one another. And let’s move forward together. We can all raise a glass to that.”

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