Labor shortage, masking and vaccine mandates imperiling US restaurant recovery

Published on
August 5, 2021
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Henry Garrido, of the DC-37 union, tour a COVID-19 mass vaccination site.

New COVID-19-related vaccination and masking requirements at restaurants in some U.S. cities are raising concerns among restaurant groups and in the seafood industry.

New York City and San Francisco are now requiring citizens to wear masks indoors – including at restaurants – due to a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, primarily sourced to the more virulent delta variant of the coronavirus. Customers at New York City restaurants and bars will also be required to show proof of vaccination before dining indoors.

U.S. gross domestic product surpassed its pre-crisis peak during the second quarter and vigorous growth is expected throughout the rest of the year, according to the National Retail Federation, but the surge in the delta variant and many Americans’ hesitation to get vaccinated could slow the growth the U.S. economy has achieved in recent months.

“It is a very different year from 2020 and a much better one,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a press release. “Vaccination is the key to further economic recovery, reopening, and rebuilding. With the outlook for the global economy continuing to hinge on public health, vaccine numbers are extremely important, not just for the U.S. but for the whole world.”

However, the pace of vaccinations “has slowed considerably” and fears of the delta variant of COVID-19 – even though they haven’t impacted consumer behavior yet – are “likely weighing on confidence," Kleinhenz said.

An estimated 57 percent of the U.S. population had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of last week, NRF noted, with herd immunity achieved only when vaccination rates rise above 70 percent.

While the National Restaurant Association supports COVID-19 vaccination efforts, the New York City mandate “will require significant changes for how restaurants are operating in the city by putting the responsibility for verifying vaccination status of employees and customers on the operator,” NRA Vice President of Science and Industry Larry Lynch said in a press release.

“Checking vaccination status isn’t like ID-ing a customer before serving them a drink – staff receive training on how to do that,” Lynch said.

Last year, when mask mandates across the country were first put in place, restaurant workers “suffered terrifying backlash when enforcing those rules,” Lynch said.

“We hope that the city will take this into consideration and will work with us to ensure there is clear guidance and support for our workforce,” he said.

Laura Ramsden, the co-owner of Boston, Massachusetts-based processor Foley Fish said she is worried foodservice sector staff being placed in difficult positions with customers.

"My concern is for the frontline restaurant folks. Hopefully, the dining public will be good to the restaurant employees who need to enforce these policies as this could put hosts [and] general managers in the line of fire as they request proof of vaccination,” Ramsden said.

However, Ramsden said she is hopeful that the new regulations will guard against lockdowns like the those that occurred throughout 2020, which she said were “devastating” for the industry.

Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, an association representing restaurants and clubs in the city, backed the vaccine mandates despite his concerns it may hurt business.

“Mandating vaccine requirements for restaurant and bar employees and customers to work and dine indoors is a very difficult step, but ultimately may prove an essential move to protecting public health and ensuring that New York City does not revert to restrictions and shutdown orders that would again absolutely devastate small businesses that have not yet recovered from the pandemic,” Rigie said.

While implications of the delta variant are a concern to all sectors of the U.S. and global economies, the seafood industry is being further challenged by several other COVID-related issues, National Fisheries Institute Director of Communications Melaina Lewis told SeafoodSource.

“Labor challenges as well as backlogs at U.S. ports, transportation price hikes, and packaging issues are complicating the daily operations of our members,” Lewis said. “All of these topics contribute to the recovery of the seafood value chain from ports and processors to retailers and restaurants.” 

The labor shortage is the biggest issue facing the seafood economy, according to Ramsden.

“The lack of workers is impacting every aspect of the supply chain and causing major disruption,” she said. “Our government leaders need to recognize the disaster that has been created and work to incentivize workers returning to work.”

Photo courtesy of Ron Adar/Shutterstock

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