Our View: Restaurants, shops face an uncertain future

May 13, 2020 10:03:26 AM



Pat Fontaine grew up on the Mississippi Coast and was working in his family's restaurant since he was 8. As executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, Fontaine has seen just about every conceivable threat to the industry, including of course the hurricanes that were always a threat to his family's business.


Until a couple of months ago, he could not have imagined anything more debilitating to a restaurant than a hurricane.


But the threat posed by the arrival of COVID-19 represents a greater existential threat to the restaurant industry than even the worst national disasters.



"The devastation from a hurricane was quite severe and the setbacks difficult, but you could always begin your recovery efforts the next day, and that's just not the case with coronavirus," Fontaine told a joint audience from the Columbus Rotary Club and the Columbus Lowndes Chamber of Commerce Tuesday.


Restaurants, confined to curbside service for most of the month of April, were allowed to reopen their dining rooms last week, albeit under certain restrictions, including a rule that allows restaurants to operate their dining rooms at no more than half-capacity.


While reopening the dining rooms will help offset the losses, it's likely to be a case of "too little, too late" to ensure the survival of some restaurants. Fontaine expects roughly 10 percent of Mississippi's restaurants to shutter for good in an industry where, even before the virus, single-digit profit margins were the norm.


No amount of expanded carry-out service will make up that deficit. Restaurants need every customer they can get.


It's important to note dining isn't just always just about a meal. It's also a form of entertainment and, sometimes, a place where business is conducted. It's likely that some day -- when we better learn to effectively cope with the virus -- restaurants will again be able to serve that purpose.


But no one knows when that day will come, nor how many of our restaurants will survive long enough to see that day.


The same is true with retail stores, too, which already faced the encroachment of online shopping.


Finally, consumers will likely have the ultimate say. Will they return? When? Will they dine out and shop our stores less often?


No one knows the answers to those questions.


That's probably the biggest challenge of all -- the unknown.