A recipe for building restaurants back stronger and better
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The U.S. economy was ravaged by COVID-19, and leaders at all levels are striving to resuscitate industries seriously wounded over the past year. Vital steps, including passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP), are helping countless businesses nationwide, among them thousands of restaurants.

These are precarious times. The restaurant industry may be emerging from intensive care but there is a long recovery ahead. We are, therefore, urging elected officials to heed an oath usually taken by doctors, to “first do no harm.”

Restaurants cannot withstand any disruptions from misguided policies that would reduce our agility, raise costs, or make it more difficult to bring back valued employees. Lawmakers must tread carefully yet act decisively. Last month, the National Restaurant Association and our state restaurant association partners came together virtually for our 35th annual Public Affairs Conference, including members from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to share their thoughts on how lawmakers can best support us.

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In many ways, the restaurant industry is a key economic indicator in the wake of COVID-19. More than a year ago, we were the first businesses to be shuttered and we will almost always the last to fully reopen. In the initial 12 months of the pandemic, restaurant sales fell $270 billion from expected levels. Nearly 2 million restaurant jobs still haven’t returned. And 110,000 restaurants remain closed, many of them permanently.

If we can rebound, America can, too.

The nation’s spirits are rising on news that over 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered. Four in five seniors have received at least one shot and vaccination is reaching other high-risk populations and progressively younger age brackets. Restaurants look forward to welcoming more of these customers back through our doors.

Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of restaurants will limp weakly through 2021, and sadly, we will probably lose more beloved eateries in the year ahead.

National Restaurant Association members have a clear view of the challenges to come. Ninety percent of operators tell us that recruiting and retaining employees will be more difficult after the pandemic than before. What’s more, the return to “normal” will be protracted. About one-third of restaurant owners and operators believe it will take seven to 12 months. Another 29 percent expect it will take more than a year. One in ten think we’ll never go back to pre-pandemic “normal.”

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Throughout this crisis, the National Restaurant Association and its state restaurant partners have been collaborating with policymakers to identify bipartisan solutions to save and restore America’s restaurants. Fortunately, leaders have responded. Changes to the Paycheck Protection Program, for example, helped accommodate more restaurants. Important tax benefits, including the employee retention tax credit, helped ease burdens at a critical time. And the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, included in the ARP, provides $28.6 billion in direct assistance for restaurants.

These measures have helped stem the financial bleeding but more work remains. The National Restaurant Association will continue to collaborate on the ongoing industry recovery effort and seek support on critical issues, from the tip credit to immigration reform.

We recognize that unity is our strength. Restaurants have always been places that bring people together over great food and drink to share exciting ideas, and we will continue to serve as catalysts for innovative solutions.

Perhaps the most important message of last month’s virtual event, however, is our determination. The sheer grit of the restaurant industry has been on display for over a year, as restaurants changed operating models, experimented with new menus and formats, and fought to keep employees on the payroll and feed customers and communities through the worst.

It’s been a terrible struggle, but we are still here today. And we want you to know that with your help, America, we will come back even stronger tomorrow.

Lance Trenary is the president and CEO of Golden Corral Corporation and vice chairman of the National Restaurant Association.