Omicron variant stresses U.S. restaurant industry


The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on numerous restaurants in the U.S. as new cases cause staff shortages and surging food prices across the country. Now, with yet another year of the pandemic, many restaurants are getting anxious about what to expect.

“I’m extremely worried. I’ve never felt like we were out of the woods,” said Caroline Glover, chef and owner of Annette, a restaurant in the Denver suburb of Aurora.

The omicron variant is spreading across the U.S., and officials have warned that it is more transmissible than the widely understood delta variant. Coming off, the Christmas and New Year rush is supposed to be the busiest and most lucrative time of the year for the hospitality industry, but we have just seen it squashed by the virus.  

Though restaurants remained open, it hasn't been business as usual since hundreds of corporate entities cancelled festive bookings almost overnight due to the soaring number of infections from the omicron variant. As infections continue to rise, chances become higher that the government will announce stricter restrictions, and this has many restaurant owners worried.

Staffing is yet another challenge. According to a recent survey of 3,000 American restaurant owners conducted by the National Restaurant Association, 77 percent of restaurants were short on workers and struggling to meet the demands of their business.

Many restaurant workers are either switching careers, going back to school, or testing positive for the coronavirus. In November, Dean Rodrigue, owner of the Sawmill Bar and Grill in Millinocket, Maine, was left battling a staff crisis after a new hire contracted the virus.

Despite months searching for a bartender to mix drinks and serve beers at his bar, Rodrigue finally hired a woman who worked just one four-hour weekend shift before sending a devasting text to her employer the following Thursday. After she tested positive for the coronavirus, Rodrigue was left with no other option than to shut down his business.

The decision was an easy yet difficult one for him to make, especially since he was counting on taking advantage of what was supposed to be a boom season to make up for the weekly losses his business had recorded. After shutting down his restaurant, Rodrigue and his girlfriend, a chef at another restaurant, got tested due to them both coming down with symptoms. Fortunately, their results were negative, and Rodrigue reopened his business the following weekend—this was allowed since it had been over a week since the bartender tested positive.

Diners know that many restaurants are struggling to manage the spread of this new variant, and some either chose to spend the festive season at home cooking and exploring healthy recipes with the help of some online ingredient conversion tools, or took the risk regardless. Recently, Alex McCoy, the chef and owner of Lucky Buns in Washington, received a call from a diner who had just tested positive for the coronavirus. The affected customer dined at his burger joint in Adams Morgan a few days earlier, and this led to the entire staff having to conduct rapid-response tests at a walk-in clinic.

In an Instagram post, McCoy announced that the affected Lucky Buns location would be closed for the day out of precaution. This has been a common trend, with similar notices popping up on social media recently as restaurants in New York, Texas, Indiana, and Minnesota continue to notify customers of their closure due to COVID-19 cases or potential exposures. In New York, where restaurant diners and employees are required to provide valid proof of vaccination, there is still an increasing number of restaurant closures due to covid cases.

Many restaurants and bars across the country are struggling with the uncertainty and financial impact of the coronavirus. Kristin Jonna, the owner of Vinology, a wine bar and restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said she had to increase staff wages by almost 40 percent to help her attract and retain employees. But with food prices still going up, she is unable to make up the cost by increasing menu prices.

“Everyone knows that beef is more expensive, but high-end, highly skilled labour is expensive, too,” said Jonna in a PBS interview. “That is the very tricky part of our business right now.”

For many restaurant owners, the current situation is no longer just a battle to keep their business afloat. It is more about their responsibilities to employees and their contribution to public health, especially since there is no clearly defined roadmap on how to manage the spread of the omicron variant.