As COVID cases increase in Lehigh Valley, unease among restaurants also increases
Since early July, the average daily increase in COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania has skyrocketed from several hundred to several thousand. The increase has a lot to do with the Delta variant, a more infectious and increasingly transmissible variant that is now the predominant strain in the United States.
While the increase in the number of cases hasn’t inspired any state closures or new terms, some residents of Pennsylvania, including the Lehigh Valley, are adjusting their lifestyles amid the worrying case jump. Specifically, they began to withdraw from the “normal” summer which was fueled by widely available vaccines and a lifting of almost all of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 restrictions.
One of the activities that seemed the most enthusiastic was having dinner in person at their favorite restaurants. But the Delta variant is putting the brakes on a strong summer, again pushing back potential customers and spreading a sense of unease in the restaurant industry.
The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association shared the results of a national survey, conducted by the National Restaurant Association, in mid-August, which asked adults about how their dining habits have changed recently as cases of COVID -19 started to rise again. The survey found that 60% of adults have changed their eating habits due to concerns about the Delta variant. Almost a fifth have stopped going out to restaurants. About 37% opted for take-out or delivery instead of having dinner on site. Almost 10% canceled pre-existing plans out of excess of caution.
The industry is yet to hit the lows it hit at the start of the pandemic, but all-too-familiar uncertainty is slowly setting in.
Rachel Griffith, owner of Apollo Grill in downtown Bethlehem, recently closed her restaurant for a week due to some groundbreaking cases among her employees. “Staff who were vaccinated ended up receiving the Delta variant,” she said. “What I thought was the right decision was the shutdown in case there were any other lingering cases among my staff.”
Griffith’s decision to prioritize safety resulted in a loss of approximately $ 75,000 in gross sales. It’s a tough way to end what used to be a good few months. “We’ve had a really, really strong summer until recently,” she said. “But I’m starting to feel that uncomfortable level again.”
Across the street at Edge Restaurant, Karen Widrick barely has time to look ahead. Widrick, COO of the Lotus Restaurant Group, owner of Edge and Surv restaurants in Easton, spent 70 hours a week in its low-staff restaurants, sometimes working as a cook in addition to her other duties.
“I can’t prepare for anything anymore,” she said. “I was able to, but due to understaffing we could be slow everyday and suddenly have 200 people on a Saturday – how do you prepare for that when your numbers don’t reflect the consistency of the way they used to? “
Widrick’s two restaurants – one established for almost 20 years, the other not yet a year old – have also had good summers. She saw more people feel more comfortable coming inside. But they’ve both taken a hit since the Delta variant became a cause for concern.
Sales are down again. “We’re looking at around 12-15%,” she said of the lost business volume.
Many of these restaurants are operating at lower capacity than normal anyway, even during the summer reopening, so 12-15% hurt even more.
“Our interior is only about 75 percent,” Widrick said. “We never brought it down to 100.”
At Apollo, Griffith lost around five full tables and eight bar stools.
And of course, it doesn’t matter who is seated in the available seats. Currently, there are no statewide restrictions or mandates regarding capacity limits or masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that masks be worn indoors, by both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, but this is only a recommendation. Wearing a mask is primarily a matter of personal preference.
“There are people who live their lives to live their lives,” Widrick said of what she has noticed in customers. “And then there are other people who live their lives with caution.”
About 90% of severe COVID-19 cases in the region’s two main hospital networks, the St. Luke University Hospital Network and the Lehigh Valley Hospital Network, are unvaccinated people. Without a mask warrant, it’s much easier for an unvaccinated person who dines in a restaurant and chooses not to wear a mask to spread the virus to others, restaurant staff included. This could result in the closure of a restaurant like Griffith’s, resulting in financial losses.
The external factors that put her business at risk are beyond her control, which she says is stressful to consider as an owner.
Widrick and his restaurants roll with the punches, because in a case like this, that’s all they can do. “You just have to adapt as you go; this is the best advice I can give.
Griffith’s advice may be more specific: get yourself vaccinated. Its staff are vaccinated and still wear masks at work. When more people – clients – get vaccinated, these external factors become less of a concern. “I will feel a lot more comfortable in my own restaurant and with the future of my restaurant,” she said.
But until that happens, she thinks the future may look bleak. “We’re going to be in this same situation over and over again.”
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Connor Lagore can be reached at [email protected].