Q&A with the Georgia Restaurant Association: How COVID-19 has impacted the state's restaurant industry

COVID-19 has caused a $2.5 billion revenue loss in the restaurant industry statewide since March 17, according to the Georgia Restaurant Association. (Kara McIntyre/Community Impact Newspaper)
COVID-19 has caused a $2.5 billion revenue loss in the restaurant industry statewide since March 17, according to the Georgia Restaurant Association. (Kara McIntyre/Community Impact Newspaper)

COVID-19 has caused a $2.5 billion revenue loss in the restaurant industry statewide since March 17, according to the Georgia Restaurant Association. (Kara McIntyre/Community Impact Newspaper)

Gov. Brian Kemp allowed for the reopening of restaurant dining rooms statewide beginning April 27, just a few weeks after mandating the closure of all dining rooms starting April 6 at 6 p.m. as part of his statewide shelter-in-place order. In the city of Alpharetta, restaurant dining rooms in city limits closed in late March per an emergency ordinance passed by Alpharetta City Council March 20, while the Fulton County Board of Health also passed an emergency ordinance for a countywide shelter-in-place March 31—therefore closing restaurant dining rooms in the city of Milton as well.

Community Impact Newspaper reached out to the Georgia Restaurant Association on April 27 to see how COVID-19 has affected restaurants in Alpharetta, Milton and across the state. Sarah Thorson, director of partnerships and events for the GRA, provided the responses below.

What are the ramifications if restaurants were to open dining rooms back up now only to potentially have to close them again if COVID-19 cases spike?

The restaurants would have to follow the same procedures by which they closed back in March and ensure that they continue with the same high standards of sanitation and well-being for their carryout, delivery and curbside business should they be permitted to continue.

Does the GRA have any projections of the number of restaurants that might be forced to close permanently or on the projected revenue loss to the restaurant industry in Georgia?

Our revenue loss is currently $2.5 billion in sales to [Georgia] restaurants since March 17. It is hard to determine at this point, but 58% of all restaurants are currently operating in a carryout, delivery and/or curbside capacity, and 300,000 workers out of 500,000 have been temporarily laid off at this point.

What does it take for a restaurant to open back up once they’ve been closed for weeks on end? What are the costs involved with starting back up, and are restaurants likely to have to seek investors again?

  1. Restaurants must inspect and reevaluate their facility to see if they can accommodate.

  2. Service and restart any equipment and HVAC systems that had been turned off while they were closed.

  3. They will have to restock their restaurant with food, beverages and supplies.

  4. They will have to prepare their restaurant to comply with all of the governor’s executive order mandates.

  5. They will have to make a menu that they can produce with limited workers to provide for limited occupancy of their dining room as well as accounting for possible unavailability of certain ingredients for their menu.

  6. They will have to recruit employees to return from furlough and retrain their employees in all the new sanitation and food handling practices as mandated by the governor’s executive order.

  7. They will also need to communicate to their guests that they are now open with a limited menu and availability.

  8. As for seeking investors, re-opening will cost tens of thousands of dollars. Each restaurant has a unique set of financial circumstances, [and] they may need to find investors.

What do you see as the long-term damage to the restaurant industry?

We will have less restaurants. Customers will have a heightened awareness of sanitation procedures in restaurants. Restaurateurs will have to be more innovative in menu scope due to product availability.

How long could it take to get back to some sense of “normalcy” if the virus is indeed slowing?

[This] will be determined by the trust that consumers have in the restaurants where they dine.

What are restaurant owners’ concerns when considering opening up again this soon compared to other states?

The safety, health and well-being of their workers and guests are the absolute top priorit[ies] in reopening. These are universal concerns that all restaurateurs face in our country.

We have seen posts circulating about how the executive order allowing restaurants to reopen blocks restaurant owners from being able to file for business interruption insurance if they choose not to reopen, even though they are “allowed” to—which means furloughed staff who are collecting unemployment insurance have to come back to work or else the owner has to let them go. As the order is written, is this true?

If a restaurant employee makes under $300 working in their restaurant, they are still eligible for both the state and federal unemployment benefits. Owners are trying to be understanding of their workers' needs and the reasons they may not be able to come back. For example, a single mother who is called back to work but has no way of finding child care, so she cannot return, should seek out communication with her employer. The Georgia Department of Insurance issued a request to the insurance industry that, since these closures were government mandated, business interruption insurance policies not be cancelled for 90 days after non-payment.

Is there anything else you would like to add in terms of how COVID-19 has affected restaurants that maybe we did not think to ask?

While there has been a lot of negative to come out of this crisis, it is important to remember all of the good. The restaurant community is coming together and supporting each other. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and in this case these new innovative inventions are both allowing customers to trust in their dining establishments again and push our industry towards new processes that have otherwise been unexplored.

Additionally, do you have any data on how the virus has affected the restaurant industry in Georgia?

To address the previous question of “long-term damage,” there will be a number of other consequences to the virus. However, not all of them will be negative. Increased awareness of customer health and safety will establish trust between establishment and consumer. Restaurants are being forced to become more innovative, so we may witness a new wave of creativity in an industry that is already incredibly creative. There will also be a likely increase in convenience from a consumer standpoint. We see restaurants that offer delivery and takeout also starting to sell basic grocery goods. Be they in-house made pasta or basic cooking essentials special to the restaurant, the consumer is able to buy more things. It is convenient for the consumer and a new stream of revenue for the restaurants. I should note that while some restaurants already offered market-type services, more are starting to do so and explore this new form of revenue.