Restaurants and bars across the state, and particularly here in Carteret County, are working hard to meet the demands of their patrons and so the recent efforts of the General Assembly to pass legislation allowing full operation is appreciated, but it is only the beginning of what may still turn out to be a difficult year for the hospitality industry.
North Carolina legislators are considering House Bill 211 that allows bars and restaurants to reopen to full capacity if they follow strict guidelines including daily temperature checks, frequent cleaning of “high touch” areas, followed by deep cleaning at the end of the business day. Buffet style restaurants must provide patrons disposable gloves and masks and in the case of large parties, table seating is limited to 10 people unless larger parties are all related.
This legislation goes a long way in providing structure for the establishments while giving the public a sense of confidence to visit restaurants and bars.
But based on anecdotal evidence as seen in the number of help wanted signs at restaurants throughout the county, this legislation may only provide psychological benefits, not the financial benefits as intended.
The vast majority of restaurants have been struggling for months with mandated limits resulting in reduced incomes which has necessitated a subsequent reduction in staff. The same mandates have for all intents and purposes forced bars to close completely, which has pushed their servers on to the unemployment rolls. Now that they can open their doors, the restaurant and bar owners are working hard to fill jobs that were lost during the height of the pandemic and recent results are not looking positive.
Carteret County restaurants, currently operating under the governor’s guidelines of 75% indoor occupancy and 100% outdoor, are finding it difficult to serve their patrons in the current environment. Already county restaurants are having to reduce days and hours of operation to give their limited staff time to rest. So the question is now, how quickly can the restaurants gear up for the oncoming tourist season which officially begins May 31, a little more than six weeks away?
According to Don Kirkman, Carteret County’s Economic Development Foundation director, the labor market in every field, both service and manufacturing is “incredibly tight.” He notes that a large number of the businesses in the county are aggressively seeking employees. And based on the current labor pool there is serious concern that should business activity rebound to conditions prior to the pandemic, many of our restaurants will not be able to provide outstanding service as in the past.
There are several factors that are impacting the lack of food service workers in the county. Obviously there are many who are concerned about public contact out of fear that the pandemic has not been completely stopped. The fact that the county has recorded its fifty-first COVID-19 death this week lends credence to that concern.
But the other and greater conflict is caused by the availability of federal support in the form of unemployment compensation and other pandemic related financial relief funds. There is no question that those financial resources were needed in most of 2020 and the first quarter of this year, but now that business operations are beginning to reopen there is ample opportunity to find employment, particularly in the service industry which is rebounding quickly.
While these pandemic funds are flowing there is little incentive for the recipients to go back to work. But this money cannot continue unabated; eventually the well will run dry and people will need to find employment. Now that job opportunities abound, it is time to turn off the federal funds spigot, thus incentivizing a return to work.
As a tourist centric community because of our beaches and accessible water resources, the hospitality industry is vital to our economy. And the key player is our restaurant community. They are a natural attraction, no matter what size or variety. From the iconic fast food served at El’s Drive-in or any of the many award winning in-dining restaurants noted for serving local, fresh seafood, tourists and locals want to enjoy Carteret County’s restaurants. The faster they can re-open to full capacity, the quicker our economy will recover, which by extension will help the state as well.