The restaurant industry comprises 10 percent of the U.S. workforce and contributes to 10 of the 12 highest sources of state-generated tax revenue in N.H.. All totaled, restaurants account for nearly 20 percent of the state budget. Seasonal locations account for 12 percent of food service licenses in N.H. If they have to open for a limited season, with a limited capacity, for limited travelers, they just won’t open at all. Year-round businesses also rely on seasonal sales boosts. In fact, tourism is N.H.’s #1 industry, if the attractions, hotels, and restaurants are counted together. Our state survives on it.
Our impact is not only fiscal. The National Restaurant Association reports that one out of two Americans has worked in food service at some point in their lives. We teach kids about work ethic and personal responsibility, and impart universally-applicable customer service skills. In addition to your morning coffee and dinner out, we are your kid’s teacher’s rent subsidy and your plow guy’s truck payment. The industry impact is sprawling, and so too would be the fallout from its collapse.
I think it’s clear we need to have a difficult discussion about how to prevent that collapse, as it’s seemingly imminent. Fifty-six percent of N.H. restaurants were already closed by April 16, according to a recent National Restaurant Association survey. Seventy-percent of respondents in a New York Times restaurant survey indicated that they would never reopen if they could not operate by July. We need to face this head on, straight away. As an industry, we are sinking fast.
Our ability to take necessary, yet cautious steps forward is already on full display. When Governor Sununu issued “Stay-At-Home 2.0” guidelines on May 1, the restaurant industry in N.H. sprang into action. Thousands of employees enrolled in and completed a new ServSafe Covid-19 Precautions Training course before a single table was sat. Sanitizing stations were installed. CDC warning signs were posted. Countless “house rules” were established. By phase 1 launch, we were prepared to protect everyone, guests and staff alike. We care immensely about our patrons, but without healthy staff, we cannot serve. These team members are not just like family, they often are. As a responsible operator, you simply do not willingly put your team in harm’s way if you’re worth the salt you sprinkle on your fries.
As the first week of Phase 1 progressed, a common sentiment emerged. We were coming back, and it felt great. For the first time in months, there was a sense of normalcy. Interestingly, this felt normal because there is very little difference between outdoor service and in-house dining from an operational standpoint. Kitchen functioning is exactly the same. Guests are using our restrooms, lobbies, plates, glassware, silverware, and sanitizer. Lots and lots of sanitizer.
But this is New England, and after eight sunny/dry days we’d be fools to expect that to continue. We also must acknowledge that much of our industry is still closed, like second-floor restaurants or sandwich shops who were simply not allowed any outdoor space. It’s going to take a more workable plan to continue moving towards sustainability for our industry. We have that plan. We’re succeeding in Phase 1. We’re seeing our staff putting their sanitation procedures into practice. We’re carefully, safely serving food, drinks, and even a little fun
We can confidently say that we’re ready for Phase 2: indoor dining. The only substantial difference is the location of the seated guest. We have no intentions of lessening safety standards for indoor dining, and we know it will not be easy. But our industry excels at overcoming challenges. We just lost the ability to show a smile in customer service, but we’re still making people happy! And we’re ready for this next challenge.
Phase 2 guidance has already been approved by the Governor’s Task Force. It closely adheres to all CDC guidelines, and offers a comprehensive outline for safe service to guests indoors while maintaining a safe work environment. Our staff will continue to be screened for symptoms, our party size will be limited, our tables will be distanced, and all surfaces will be sanitized. Scientists agree that Covid-19 cannot be contracted through ingestion, but instead respiration is key. As such, fresh air rates are a critical health concern. This is why N.H. health officials accepted outdoor dining in the first place. It’s also why restaurants are uniquely suited to begin indoor service to the public. Thanks to our very expensive kitchen hood systems, the average restaurant has nearly double the fresh air rate of the average office building, and exponentially greater fresh air rates than home, according to the the American Soceity of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). Residential homes commonly have the most energy efficiency, and thus the poorest air quality of most indoor structures. Correspondingly, recent studies on early Covid-19 spread in China and Italy indicate that over 75 percent of infections occurred in the home. Even more recent statistics from contact tracing in the U.S. correlate with this information.
And while the rest of the world has increased its “energy efficiency” down to a near-zero rate of fresh air to save on energy costs — to the detriment of indoor air quality — our industry has maintained the ventilation necessary to remove the heat, smoke and carbon produced by multiple ovens, fryolators, grills, and other cooking equipment. This results in enough air replacement every 8-10 minutes to provide fresh air for the entire building. This is an industry standard, and we have the energy bills to prove it. Restaurant ventilation is by no means riskier than other indoor spaces. Sitting at a table, spaced away from others, enjoying the company of live-in family is much different than a bustling grocery or box store checkout area. When I’ve been in those environments recently, I find myself itching to escape, frustrated that people perceive a restaurant table as more spatially invasive and less sanitary than those interpersonal super-highways.
We are over one month since other states reopened their restaurants for in-house dining. In those states, there is no evidence that reopening these businesses has spiked positive cases. In fact, the earliest states (Georgia and Florida) saw a well-publicized decline in Covid-19 infections after reopening. There is no indication that food service in general increases viral spread. That being said, during this health crisis, if any establishment is careless, negligent, or disregards recommended health precautions, and an outbreak can be traced back to that location, it would be a death sentence to the brand. We simply cannot put others at risk for the well-being of our business, because that would be inherently oxymoronic.
As testing, contact tracing, and scientific information afford us more information, we can continue to update guidelines and find our way through this crisis. I value humanity over economics, and would gladly exchange widespread public health for personal financial profit if that were a realistic trade-off. The fact is, they go hand-in-hand. We need a healthy industry for long-term public health. If we’re going to last as a people, as an economy, and as a nation through this pandemic, we’ll need businesses to safely operate. We need to welcome and encourage public health and safety officials to guide industry in the process, and we’re best to abide by those guidelines. What we cannot do, is sit back and point fingers at everything we disagree with, while nothing moves forward and everything falls apart. Luckily, this is N.H. and we’re better than that.
In N.H., we’ve already laid out the guidelines for most industries. I commend the work of the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force, and the public health officials they’ve reported to in the process. None of these jobs are easy, yet they’ve excelled at laying out these complex, thorough guidelines. But a plan is only as good as the follow-through, and it’s time to move forward. Let’s begin Phase 2 for restaurants in early June.
Jay Bolduc is managing operator for Great N.H. Restaurants. He is also chairman of the N.H.L.R.A. Board of Directors.