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Closures Highlight Need for RESTAURANTS Act, Change of Bar and Restaurant Definitions

Less than two weeks after ordering the closure of bars and the halting of indoor operations of restaurants, wineries, movie theaters and family entertainment venues in 19 counties, California Governor Gavin Newsom has extended that order statewide.

Due to an increase in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Gov. Newsom said California is “moving back into a ‘modification mode’ of our original stay-at-home order.”

As of yesterday, the positivity rate had risen 7.7 percent over seven days. Hospitalizations had risen by 28 percent over the course of 14 days, including an increase of intensive care unit (ICU) admissions of 20 percent.

The statewide order also prohibits the indoor operations of zoos, museums and card rooms. Indoor operations for places of worship, fitness centers, salons and barbershops, indoor malls and “non-critical sector” offices in 32 counties, including Los Angeles County, must also cease.

Over the course of the past several months, governors have often included an end date with their closure mandates. Gov. Newsom’s statewide and county-specific orders were issued without such a date. This means that operators already on edge about having to close or restrict service yet again have been pushed further into the dark.

California’s governor is not the only one who has issued orders impacting bars, restaurants and other hospitality businesses in response to spikes in positive COVID-19 tests.

In Nevada, for example, Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered the closure of all bars, taverns and breweries that don’t serve food by midnight on July 10. The order affects Clark County—where Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson, Primm and Boulder City are located—and Washoe County, the most populous counties in the state.

After Gov. Sisolak defended his decision by stating half the bars in the state had failed social distancing and mask checks, several operators in the state pushed back. Those who have been following orders and guidelines decried the order as unfair, with some saying closures affect only those who flout the rules.

Governors in some states have issued orders that, while allowing some operators to remain open in some capacity, have put them in a difficult spot. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for instance signed a bill on July 1 that allows restaurants and bars to sell cocktails to go. On that same day, Gov. Whitmer ordered lower Michigan bars to cease indoor service, permitting those with outdoor service capabilities to remain open.

The ability to offer cocktails to go is a lifeline of sorts for operators but an executive order from July 10 puts them and their teams in a challenging position. Gov. Whitmer’s order requires all businesses open to the public to refuse entry and deny service to anyone who refuses to wear a mask, with the exceptions of children under the age of five and those who are medically exempt from wearing a mask. People seated at a restaurant may remove masks to eat and drink.

Gov. Whitmer’s executive order puts hospitality industry professionals in the state at risk for potential confrontations. The directive, intended to enforce mask requirements, makes sense on its face. However, it could put undue burden on operators. There have been reports of some operators voluntarily closing their doors after employees were subjected to abuse by people who were hostile toward mask policies.

However well intentioned, many governors’ orders are placing additional, incredible financial strain on an industry that has largely been forced to face devastating challenges on its own.

In Texas, for example, an order from Gov. Greg Abbott on June 26 that closed bars also resulted in the closure of over 1,500 restaurants. The restaurants had been identified as bars incorrectly because Gov. Abbott used the wrong language. The state changed the requirements for a food and beverage certificate from an alcohol sales cutoff of 51 percent to 60 percent in 2017, but the governor’s order used the former threshold.

The mistake, according to the Texas Restaurant Association, cost 35,000 people their jobs. As of July 9, the TRA has pushed for the definition of a restaurant in Texas to be revised. Several lawsuits targeting the closure of bars have been filed.

Problematic orders highlight the need for local, state and federal officials to do more to understand the needs and challenges of the hospitality industry. Several million jobs and billions of dollars have been wiped out, and time is running out to save even a small percentage of independent bars, restaurants, and other hospitality businesses. Some major chains have been forced to shutter a number of their locations or halt expansion plans, resulting in massive layoffs, furloughs and terminations.

On top of the need for Congress to pass the RESTAURANTS Act immediately, lawmakers must take the time, fleeting as it’s becoming to enact meaningful protections, to gain a better understanding of the industry. Restaurant, bar, and entertainment venue definitions need to be reviewed and revised.

Expecting hospitality professionals to police mask orders must also be reconsidered. Operators throughout the country have shared stories of their workers being threatened with violence—sometimes accompanied by the brandishing of weapons—insulted viciously, and even spit and coughed on for attempting to enforce state mandated mask and social distancing policies. It’s outright dangerous to expect hospitality workers, already risking their health to remain employed, to risk their lives over some people’s refusal to protect themselves and others by wearing a mask.

Change is overdue and must come swiftly if we’re to save the industry and protect the millions of people who proudly serve others.

Photo by Miguel Montejano from Pexels

David Klemt View All

I’ve been studying and writing about the hospitality industry since 2006. Like so many people, I started my journey in this business by working as a host, server and bartender. I was introduced to nightlife in Chicago, learning the ins and outs of nightclubs and after-hours hot spots.

After moving to Las Vegas nearly 20 years ago, I both co-owned a valet company and helped promote the club it serviced. That led to me taking on the role of editor for a Las Vegas hospitality industry publication.

A few short years later, I continued along my journey of hospitality industry reporting. I went from contributing to a major industry outlet to taking on the role of editor and content curator.

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