Reopening restaurants quickly will help nurture COVID-19 recovery

Op-EdAppeared in Washington Times on June 11, 2020By Carlos Gazitua

As many as 100,000 small businesses have closed permanently

Coronavirus has ravaged the country. The pandemic has so far claimed the lives of more than 108,000 loved ones. Over 42 million Americans have lost their jobs, with the unemployment rate skyrocketing to its highest level since the Great Depression.

And, though we’ve “flattened the curve” and significantly reduced the number of people requiring hospitalization, many state and local leaders are reluctant to fully reopen the economy, restaurants included.

As the owner and president of Sergio’s Family Restaurants in South Florida, serving up healthy Cuban soul food is what I and my employees do best. Unfortunately, in order to comply with the government-imposed lockdown, we were forced to close our doors for weeks with our customers having to buy take-out food only. Even now, under Florida’s Phase 2 reopening, we can only open up our restaurant at 50-percent capacity.

We need to reopen at a faster pace, in Florida and across the country. Already, researchers from Harvard Business School and the University of Chicago estimate as many as 100,000 small businesses have closed permanently.

“Restaurateurs believe that they have a 72 percent chance of survival if the crisis lasts one month,” reads the report, “but if the crisis lasts four months, then they give themselves only a 30 percent chance of survival. If the crisis lasts for six months, then they expect to survive with only a 15 percent probability.”

This is true in my case. Decreased revenue from limited service capacity and weeks of closure — combined with the added cost of personal protective equipment — is straining scarce financial resources. Even with a forgivable, government-backed loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, all of these stressors could force me under.

In endeavoring to mitigate one crisis, we’ve created another. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, almost 50 percent of Americans say the pandemic is having a negative impact on their mental health. Nearly one in three Americans are apparently suffering from clinical anxiety, according to a recent survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau, while one in four Americans report suffering from clinical depression.

This was predictable because Americans are social beings who crave community and connection. We see this all the time at Sergio’s Family Restaurants, for example. There is simply no replacing the mental-health benefits of sharing a delicious, nutritious meal with family and friends. No Zoom call can satisfy that craving.

Doctors predict as many as 75,000 people will die deaths of despair — suicide, drug and alcohol abuse — as a result of loneliness and financial anxiety caused by the lockdowns.

Additionally, Americans are experiencing a delay in critical medical treatment. This includes not only treatments for terminal illnesses but delays in preventative screening that, if commissioned sooner, could have increased a patient’s chances of fighting off a deadly disease.

“There are large proportions of Americans and people worldwide just afraid of coming to see the doctor, and it’s a huge concern because unfortunately routine medical illnesses don’t take a break because of coronavirus,” says Dr. John N. Mafi, professor of medicine at the University of California Los Angeles.

We need to find innovative ways to secure people’s physical and financial health. Small businesses like mine can be part of the solution — but only if we’re allowed to do so. Lawmakers at the state and local level need to empower small businesses by reopening the economy at a faster rate. We can lead America’s economic recovery and there’s no time to spare.

Carlos Gazitua is president of Sergio’s Family Restaurants in South Florida and a member of Job Creators Network.