Over the last month, the United States has come to have the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world — more than the next three countries combined. The pandemic has completely ravaged the country’s economy and cultural institutions, with some 16 million people having (successfully) filed for unemployment in the last three weeks alone. Restaurants have been among the most vulnerable sectors, as Eater recently showed with data from several data-tracking tech apps associated with the food industry. Just a few weeks later, a new round of data shows how the pandemic continues to overrun American dining culture and the people who make it.
Mid-March: How People Chipped In
Around March 15, several governors, including those in Illinois, California, and New York, started mandating that restaurants restrict services to delivery and takeout-only, shutting their doors to diners. The move, which may have come too late in many places, ultimately saved lives and slowed the spread of the virus, but it was also a huge blow to restaurants’ livelihoods. One survey, by the National Restaurant Association, estimated that the industry has already lost more than $25 billion in sales.
A slew of charities, campaigns, and relief funds quickly sprang up across America to prop up ailing restaurants and support laid off workers, with gift cards and restaurant merch being among the most popular ways to keep revenue flowing even as dining rooms remain empty. Bentobox, a website builder designed for restaurants, has tracked the number of gift cards sold through its clients’ sites. Sales for Bentobox’s more than 5,000 restaurant clients peaked during the first week of the governor-mandated restaurant closures, with spikes over the weekend; the company saw 10 times as many sales on March 17 than the prior week. Meanwhile, purchases for non-menu merchandise items also grew, with sales made on March 15 increasing nine times compared to the week before.
People have also been donating to healthcare workers. Point-of-sale company Square saw a 1,500 percent increase in donations to medical workers, focussed on meals, snacks, and coffee.
Mid-March: How People Coped
Stuck inside, many Americans are looking for ways to cope. Not only were restaurants told to shut their doors to “flatten the curve,” consumers were told to do their part by staying inside. Last month, Eater found that grocery sales skyrocketed amid shelter-in-place orders. New data show that while stuck inside with nowhere to go many people turned to alcohol.
Data from Womply, a customer management software company, shows that on March 16 and March 17, liquor store revenue doubled, compared to the prior year. Similarly, Foursquare data shows that foot traffic to liquor stores since increased by 25 percent compared to a month ago. Even by the end of the month, according to Yelp statistics, consumer interest in beer, wine and spirits, and breweries has only grown, with interest four times as high on March 29 as it was two weeks earlier.
More restaurants are trying to sell wine and beer to try to make up for their losses, often times with help from the government. As many restaurants were forced to shift to takeout-only options, some lawmakers cut back some alcohol restrictions. New York state is allowing bars and restaurants to sell liquor for offsite consumption for the first time, as long as the drinks are sold with food. Illinois officials began encouraging restaurants to take advantage of its looser regulations and sell alcohol with takeout as well.
The growing demand for alcohol has been a problem in some places. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot enacted a 9 p.m. curfew for liquor stores, arguing that some people are congregating at these businesses, violating social distancing protocols.
Mid-to-late March: How People Lost Work
As expected, COVID-19’s impact on the economy has led to massive job losses, but more are likely on the horizon. The Job Quality Index, compiled by a consortium of research institutions, estimates that as many as 9 million restaurant jobs are at risk of short-term and temporary loss due to the coronavirus pandemic. When bars are added, the industry could lose more than 1 million additional jobs, which accounts for almost 28 percent of the 37 million jobs the group says are in jeopardy.
It’s unclear how many of the job losses are merely temporary. A survey from the National Restaurant Association showed that while at least 44 percent of restaurant owners have closed temporarily, 11 percent are planning shut their doors for good in the next month. Womply data shows that by March 27, 16 percent of restaurants had already stopped collecting transactions, implying they’ve ceased operating. Meanwhile, job posts in the food services category for Indeed.com, the job listing forum, also declined. By March 28, listings were down 28 percent compared to last year.
Homebase, a scheduling and time tracking app, has already seen unemployment rising among its group of more than 20,000 restaurants. As of April 6, the number of hourly employees working in restaurants using Homebase was down 65 percent compared to last year; the number of restaurants operating was also down, by 50 percent compared to last year.
As the pandemic sweeps through the food and dining world, restaurant owners and their staff have no idea when relief will come. They’re forced to play things by ear, and it’s unclear how long many can keep up the fight.
Hoping to nurse the economy and spare jobs, President Donald Trump and Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package that will give laid-off Americans weekly $600 unemployment checks and a bonus up to $1,200 for people earning less than $75,000. The plan also provides forgivable loans for small business owners. But some argue the plan won’t be enough for the food services industry. Congress is pushing to add at least $250 billion more to the plan, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pushing for twice as much.
Even though data captures a snapshot of how American life has changed amid the COVID-19 outbreak, the pandemic’s full impact on American dining remains to be seen. As millions of Americans await their stimulus checks it’s unclear if that or any other form of relief will be enough for the restaurant industry to make a speedy recovery, or what the food world will look like when this is over.
Vince Dixon is Eater’s senior dataviz reporter.