As the country moves closer to life post-COVID, questions remain for an industry that has been put through the wringer.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that fully vaccinated Americans could shed their masks and disregard social distancing in most situations, it marked the latest step in our march back to “normal.” You could almost feel the country collectively exhale, breathing a sigh of relief that the situation had improved enough to make such a step possible.
But, despite the excitement of being able to walk around, hug family, and enjoy a slice of everyday life without a mask, it also opened an entirely new can of worms for the restaurant industry. For 14 months, restaurant owners and operators have had to deal with everything from lockdowns and closures to capacity restrictions, new technology, and regulations that have varied wildly from state to state.
As the country moves closer to life post-COVID, questions remain for an industry that has been put through the wringer. The virus has split public opinion, and while some people are comfortable continuing to wear masks, others aren’t. Some have wholeheartedly embraced online ordering, while others are anxious to belly up to the bar with their friends.
The restaurant industry is hungry for answers, but like so many other times since the pandemic began, it seems like we’ll all be figuring it out as we go along.
What We Know So Far
On May 13, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear a mask or practice social distancing in most areas, citing new research. As of mid-May, nearly half the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, while more than 36% (about 120 million Americans) are considered fully vaccinated.
During a recent interview with TODAY, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was cautiously optimistic about the new guidelines but stressed that the situation is still fluid.
“I think we really do have to be humble and say that this virus, this pandemic, has given us twists and turns,” Walensky said. “So, we can’t get our eye off the ball, and we do have to continue to monitor really carefully.”
The infection rate has decreased in recent weeks, and vaccinations were moving along smoothly, but Walensky stressed we aren’t out of the woods just yet.
“We needed to take this first step to say if you are vaccinated, individuals themselves are really safe to be able to take their mask off,” she explained. “But what we really do need to understand is that this country is not uniform. There are places in this country that still have higher rates of disease. There are places in this country that still have lower rates of vaccination… Ultimately, we know that this virus is an opportunist, and where there are low rates of vaccination, it will emerge again.”
What stands out here is that, to Walensky’s point, the country has not had a uniform approach to tackling the virus. As a result, what should be a good piece of news has left restaurant owners, guests, and staff scratching their heads.
Looser Mask Restrictions Create More Questions than Answers
The CDC is excited to announce this unexpected and thrilling news, but where does this leave the industry? Well, no one is totally sure. Every state has handled the virus differently. Some clamped down on gatherings and enforced mask mandates; others seemingly have taken a more laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.
For its part, the agency has released some guidance related to its decision, but it’s targeted primarily toward the general public. The CDC’s interim COVID-19 directions don’t cover restaurants specifically but say, “…fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”
About half of the U.S. no longer has a mask mandate. The CDC’s news caused other states, including Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Nevada, to ease their own restrictions. Meanwhile, states like New York, Massachusetts, and Delaware said they wanted to take a more cautious approach to the eased restrictions and will maintain current mask mandate guidelines until they’ve had a chance to complete their own reviews. As of this writing, all three states have since said they’ll be following CDC guidance and lifting mask mandates for fully vaccinated people in the coming days.
For restaurants, it’s difficult to know what the next step is. While the CDC is suggesting that fully vaccinated people are safe to not wear a mask while eating inside of a restaurant or bar, how do restaurants know who has been vaccinated? Currently, unless a person walks around with their vaccination card in hand, we’re mostly going off the honor system. Restaurants have already expressed some concern with how that information is collected, or if they can even ask for it, while others have suggested that it’s time to start trusting one another.
It doesn’t sound like the National Restaurant Association is making many changes to its ongoing COVID-19 guidelines either. During a recent ABC interview, Larry Lynch, SVP of Science and Industry for the NRA, mentioned that restaurants have been welcoming both vaccinated and non-vaccinated guests for months now, but eateries would have to rely on guidance from local and state governments to move forward safely.
When Will Restaurants Return to "Normal?"
To be honest, we don’t know yet. The entire pandemic has been a lesson in doing things live and seems like another opportunity to refine our processes and procedures as we go. The best advice we can give at this point is to stay abreast of what your local and state governments are doing and ask questions whenever you can.
What this recent news should be is an encouraging sign for all of us that the country is finally starting to get the crisis under control. While there are still parts of the world under incredible duress, including our friends and colleagues in India, this news shows that progress has been made.
As we learn more about what the CDC’s announcement means for us, we’ll make sure to share it here. But for now, we should take this news for what it is – a step in the right direction.
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