During the past nine months, 110,000 of U.S. farmers’ best customers have been shut down as COVID-19 continues its march through the countryside.
That number represents 17% of the nation’s restaurants. While the restaurant business inherently has lots of risk, nothing like this has happened in recent memory. Of those restaurants that are still open, 37% won’t survive six months without economic aid, according to the National Restaurant Association.
The association describes the plight of its 500,000 members as “free fall.” Most full-service restaurants — 87% of them — say their revenue is down 37%. And most operators expect the dire situation to get worse.
While governors try to use shutdowns as a tool to keep hospitals from being flooded with COVID-19 patients — which is laudable — they tend to pick on some businesses while others are allowed to stay open.
For example, in Oregon, marijuana shops, tattoo parlors and liquor stores remain open while gyms, zoos, gardens and aquariums are closed. Go figure.
And restaurants are limited to takeout or delivery only. Or customers can sit in a tent, as they do in places like Bend and Hermiston, eating their meals in 30-degree temperatures.
Last week in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom slammed the door shut on many of the state’s restaurants, limiting them to takeout.
Here’s what it looked like in Southern California.
Before the shutdown, all of the customers sat outside in 70-degree weather, observing social distancing. They wore masks while waiting to be served. Servers and cooks, also wearing masks, tended to the customers.
After the shutdown, the dining area was empty. The servers were laid off and only one cook remained to handle the trickle of takeout orders.
When asked what he planned to do during the shutdown, a manager said, “We’ll figure out something. This is the fourth time it’s happened since March.”
The shutdowns hurt more than restaurants, their employees and customers. They hurt farmers.
Many restaurants buy their food directly from farmers or from distributors that buy food from farmers. Without their business, the farmers and distributors have had to go to Plan B, C and now, D. Stand by for Plans E, F and G.
Every shutdown means lost business. When — make that if — restaurants re-open, it’s unknown whether they will buy from the same farms or distributors. In turn, farms and distributors may have been forced to pivot to other buyers, if they can find them.
In short, if a governor wanted to kill the restaurant industry, all he or she needs to do is keep randomly shutting them down on short notice.
Maybe that’s why there has been so much recall talk in California and Oregon.
As an alternative to sweeping, one-size-fits-all orders, the governors and the public would be better served by using the data they have been collecting to identify COVID-19 hot spots.
For example, in Oregon, the data is broken down by zip codes, allowing the health authorities to zero in on problem areas.
Other areas where the problems are minor or non-existent could be left alone, if the governor allowed it.
That would be both fair and effective.
But there’s hope.
This week, at-risk populations in the U.S. began receiving the COVID-19 vaccines.
It can’t happen soon enough, not only for our health but the health of those segments of the economy such as restaurants that have been decimated not by the virus but by random, ill-considered shutdowns.