By John Klar
In the restaurant world, if the chefs run out of ingredients for a menu item they inform the wait staff to “86 it” — remove it from the menu. The shutdown in Vermont of essentially its entire restaurant industry will likely result in the “86-ing” of 30% or more of its restaurants, never to reopen. COVID-19 has killed 53 people in Vermont and also thousands of jobs.
Restaurants nationwide are shut down, but Vermont’s restaurant industry is particularly vulnerable. In 2018, Vermont boasted some 1,413 eating and drinking establishments, and restaurants generated $1.1 billion in estimated sales. In 2019, some 29,600 people were employed in restaurant and food service jobs (9% of all Vermont state employment). Many of those people can be seen in a recent video with signs that say “#Dont86Us.”
The Green Mountain State relies greatly on its tourism industry, which in turn requires a diverse, quality supply of food and lodging. A particular attraction for Vermont tourism is its family-owned restaurants, which tragically are more likely to be swallowed in that 30% of closures than resilient national chains. Yet, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s recent plans for the distribution of CARE Act funds ignores restaurants (and farms), allocating most money to state agencies.
The state of Vermont is diverting money to state bureaucratic programs, which is earmarked by the federal government to compensate businesses for COVID-19 losses. It is particularly galling for restaurants and other businesses that the Vermont government caused their COVID-19 losses by indefinitely closing them down, and now pockets federal relief designed to offset that very harm.
Meanwhile, most laid-off workers are eligible to collect unemployment plus a $600 relief check, meaning they would prefer to stay home. But if 30% of Vermont’s restaurants close, where will these people work when the unemployment and relief funds expire?
The great American tradition of going out to dinner has been put on hold. How long will it be suspended? How long can restaurateurs suspend their financial health, with no relief money, no unemployment check and no firm date to reopen? Which favorite local eatery, (like the Green Goddess Cafe in Stowe, which laid off 11 employees), will reopen successfully, and which ones will be unable?
Applebees will reopen, as will Olive Garden and Chili’s. McDonald’s has been pumping food out its drive-thru windows right along through the crisis (it’s hard to install a drive-thru at the Green Goddess). Of course, meal prices will likely increase at those national chains, with local competition diminished post-COVID-19.
Vermont’s local restaurants are in peril, economic casualties of the coronavirus. No one wishes to see more people die of a deadly illness. Yet, the greater the delay in reopening public dining establishments in Vermont, the more restaurants will be unable to do so. Hopefully, when that day arrives Vermonters will fill restaurants in their relief to embrace normalcy. But it will not be normal if many of those iconic diners or corner cafes disappear.
Summer tourist season looms — hoped-for weddings, planned events, fairs, all hang in the same tenuous balance as restaurants, hotels and other businesses. Governor Scott seems to perceive that he has unlimited executive power so long as he invokes a life-saving purpose. But what power does he hold to restore these local, family-owned Vermont landmarks and entrepreneurs once they are gone? The governor didn’t shut down dairy farms, which have been hurt hard by this crisis. But he did shut down restaurants, and can remedy that problem by allowing them to reopen if they wish.
It’s time to “86” the restaurant shutdown in Vermont. People at risk from coronavirus can remain at home while others gain immunity in their favorite hometown restaurant.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and former pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield. He is running for governor in 2020.