Expect the rising fear of a second wave, more social distancing protocols and continuing economic panic to undermine consumer confidence at least until 2021, and likely longer. A presidential election this fall doesn’t help matters.
Sit-down restaurant owners are faced with a Herculean task of reaching pre-Covid full-time equivalent employment by June 30, and trying to make money with an economically challenged consumer in a reduced seating plan.
The best-case scenario is that the virus loses strength this summer, effective treatments for symptoms are introduced quickly, a vaccine is discovered by the end of the year, and an economic recovery is V-shaped. And restaurants get filled again. That’s a delusion.
But, there is a movement afoot in most states to get the economy back on track sooner rather than later, by adopting the "Swedish Model," one that keeps businesses and schools open, but protects the most vulnerable. That means putting in place testing, strict social distancing protocols and allowing people to make decisions for themselves about what is safe behavior. What’s the real difference between going into a crowded Walmart or Costco, but not a crowded Cheesecake Factory?
Economists, epidemiologists and politicians are playing out various scenarios, hoping to reach a middle ground. Even the most strident health advocates are acknowledging the fragility of the economy with the haphazard lock-down policies.
A leading "alarmist," Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota and author of the Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, is now concerned about the economy.
"We can’t lock down our world for 18 or 24 months and expect society to survive as we know it," said Osterholm on a May 6 podcast.
Osterholm believes that until an effective vaccine is introduced, or the so-called herd immunity, which he estimates to be only 5-15% right now, must increase to a level of 60% and 70% in order to slow down the transmission of the virus. Osterholm says government policy has been about getting through the initial transmission of the virus via lockdown, but now its important to change the discussion, and actually learn to live with the virus.
Living with the virus means adopting the so-called Swedish model, and allowing people to go back out in the community, albeit at a safe distance. Nancy Monroe, editor of one of our sister publications, Foodservice News, examined what is happening in Sweden. Nancy writes:
"Sweden adopted a modified policy calling for social distancing, working from home and closing gathering places such as cinemas, colleges and universities, but not school for kindergarten through ninth grades. Restaurants stayed open, but guests didn’t come.
Richard Tellstrom, associate professor in food history at Stockholm University, estimates in his conversations with restaurant owners in Stockholm that revenue is down about 90 percent. Takeout and delivery are up, he said, and restaurants have started making weekend meals, which he called "fancy meals" that require some prep and cooking on the diner’s part."
Will U.S. consumers crowd restaurants and bars right after the lockdowns are lifted? So far, they haven’t in the few states that have opened dining rooms, and based on Sweden’s numbers, they might not do so here, either, at least until the medical science catches up. That’s no panacea for the sit-down shops that have taken the biggest hit, but at least it’s a start.
Osterholm’s advice is to be resilient. "Don’t give in to the virus. We’re going to find creative ways to deal with this," he said.