Coronavirus Lockdowns Must End Immediately to Save the U.S. Restaurant Industry

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Coronavirus lockdown measures are doing irreparable harm to the service industry in this country, and restaurants are being hit particularly hard. We need to fully open the economy before it’s too late for so many of our small businesses across America to survive.

In early December, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) sent a letter to Congress detailing the terrible toll the Coronavirus pandemic has taken on the industry. As of December 1, 2020, around 17 percent of restaurants in this country were “closed permanently or long-term,” according to an NRA study.

Recent headlines reveal a steady stream of news stories from all across the country spelling doom for small business owners in the food service industry. In Illinois: Restaurant closures a troubling trend, Mahomet leaders say. In Wisconsin: Here are 8 longtime restaurants Milwaukee lost in 2020. In Minnesota: 94 Twin Cities restaurants that closed in 2020. It’s the same story in every city in every state, and it’s why the Washington Post reported last week that food industry job losses accounted for 372,000 of the jobs lost in December.

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Trust me, I understand the danger that small businesses face today. Though I built one of the best brands in the pizza delivery business out of a broom closet to 5,200 stores worldwide, it was created as a large network of small businesses, with a culture focused on putting people first always – until I stopped running the company day-to-day at the beginning of 2016. Even the smallest things can put a business in financial jeopardy and this pandemic has been anything but small.

I also know what it’s like to have a dream in the food service industry, and it breaks my heart that so many restaurant owners out there are watching their dreams disappear.

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After a difficult period of stringent lockdowns, it was reported that nearly 90 percent of restaurants and bars in New York City couldn’t pay their rent in August. In December, over half of restaurant owners said that they couldn’t last another six months without government assistance — and the very same week that survey came out, New York State announced a new indoor seating ban.

These lockdowns also hurt far more than just the economy. In addition to all the businesses lost and dreams destroyed, experiencing economic uncertainty or devastation and facing long term unemployment can all lead to drug addiction, alcoholism, and depression.

It’s no surprise that new research published recently revealed that so-called “deaths of despair” — deaths due to alcohol, drugs, or suicide — increased significantly in 2020. One must wonder whether measures ostensibly implemented to save lives are actually killing people.

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Government assistance in the form of stimulus checks and emergency low-interest loans have certainly helped many businesses survive to this point. The private sector has provided great support to workers and small business owners as well. My own family foundation has provided relief to many organizations and business owners with over $1 million in support, and there’s much more that can be done by those of us blessed to be able to help at this time.

These measures have certainly helped many businesses get through this past ten months, but they won’t make much of a difference to restaurants and other small businesses on the brink of collapse for much longer.

Given the grave economic and human cost of these lockdown measures, continuing to force restaurants to stay closed or operate with diminished capacity and hours can’t be justified now. It’s clear that America’s restaurant industry cannot survive continued lockdowns, and that the best assistance the government can provide is to lift restaurant restrictions and simply get out of their way.

Make no mistake — coronavirus is obviously a serious illness and we should take measures to protect the vulnerable. But in younger, healthier people the coronavirus death rate is comparable to other illnesses. Business owners can and should be trusted to apply proper health standards — their very survival depends on it. Moreover, customers should be able to make our own decisions for them and their families about any potential health risks of visiting a restaurant or a bar, especially now that we have a vaccine being rolled out nationwide.

Fortunately, it appears like New York’s Governor Cuomo  and other leaders are now ready to re-open their economies again, and not a moment too soon.

Americans can survive anything, but it’s time to trust our small business owners to apply healthy practices in their establishments and be allowed the freedom to conduct business once again, unimpeded by well-meaning policies that may do more harm than good at this point.

meet the author

Papa John Schnatter is the founder and former Chairman and CEO of Papa John’s International, Inc.

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