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Task Force to Re-Open Florida Prioritizes ‘Consumer Sentiment’

I took some time earlier today to listen in on the Re-Open Florida Task Force Industry Working Group. The discussion today was about tourism and the restaurant industry, two industries I am quite familiar with as a food writer in Florida.

A number of CEOs and advocates for industry players spent time talking about their recommendations for Florida to re-open for business. One thing most of them left out was the vital importance of widespread testing and how Florida still is not at a stage where opening is safe for the public.

Most speakers on the call brought up the fact that Florida’s small businesses in the restaurant industry may not survive if they do not re-open in the next month or so.

There was plenty of commonalities between speakers with most of them stressing consumer sentiment and employee safety. The executives seemed divided on how exactly that could be achieved, but they all agreed if they cannot achieve those basic tenets that it will be dangerous for them to re-open.

Things mentioned included masks, temperature checks, phases of social distancing, bacterial cleanings of hotel rooms, PPE, paid sick leave, among other things. Stakeholders mentioned that without these things employees would not feel a desire to return to their jobs and that the public would be uneasy to come back.Subscribe

Notably, these materials are barely available at the moment for our healthcare workers who are currently in hospitals being forced to re-wear and limit masks and there is a nationwide PPE shortage. Different hospitals seem to have different supply access, although doctors and nurses continue to protest a lack of supplies as recently as today.

These materials also seem to be missing in our nursing homes which are experiencing spikes of coronavirus outbreaks across the state with over 300 ALF facilities currently dealing with positive coronavirus cases impacting patients and employees.

Jose Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, discussed how his company had dealt with outbreaks of COVID-19 at other locations around the country and world with shutdowns and cleanings to try and raise consumer sentiment and that his company has spent a heavy amount of marketing capital to reassure customers that takeout and delivery are safe. One thing I noticed was that the steps he mentioned his company takes are recommended to franchisees, but not necessarily required or forced on them.

One of the main issues with choosing to re-open restaurants is that COVID-19 can be spread through droplets and even through breathing from those infected with the virus, a study from Iceland says an estimated 50% of carriers are asymptomatic, therefore it would be hard to know who actually has the virus without more intensive testing. Another study recently reports that 9 people became infected when sitting next to a COVID-19 carrier in a restaurant.

It would be very difficult to ensure that COVID-19 could not be spread in a dining room to employees and other guests. One of the solutions that was proposed was to slowly lift social distancing in phases as Florida monitors the virus.

The amount of oversight to enforce any of these things sounds like it would be quite a burden for the state to actually implement and would most likely leave the burden on businesses themselves.

The task force lacks any doctors to recommend how to proceed, which is remarkable considering that Florida continues to have hundreds of hospitalizations and dozens of deaths nearly every day so far. Without any doctors on the task force, it seems we are forced to trust business professionals whose first priority seems to be sagging profits and a dire need to restart.

During the phone call, bed tax and sales tax revenue were brought up over and over again as hotel owners and restaurant groups reminded listeners that the state funds rely on taxes from their industry to function.

Hotel CEOs called for beaches to be opened again as amenities so that “guests can have something to do” and announced advanced talks with local officials around the state to have beaches open as soon as May 15th or earlier, according to Cody Kahn, Holiday Inn Resort Owner. The frustration with the current social distancing efforts was noticeable in the tone that Kahn displayed on the phone call.

Kahn brazenly attacked “fake news” and “CNN” media for their role in the current crisis and commended President Trump for doing a great job, despite over 45,000 Americans deaths in the last two months and climbing. The comments did not seem constructive to the goals of the task force and were aired on live television and throughout Facebook and social media websites.

One of the most bizarre parts of the phone call was when Visit Florida President and CEO, Dana Young, called for a marketing plan that would pitch Floridians to take a vacation within the state and support local businesses since the state cannot currently rely on international travelers to fuel Florida’s tourism industry as COVID-19 continues to spread.

This plan seemed tone-deaf and completely disconnected from a world where hundreds of thousands of Floridians are waiting for their unemployment checks to be processed after weeks of issues online and can barely eat at the moment. Will those jobs that were lost magically come back when Florida re-opens as the rest of the nation battles COVID-19? That remains to be seen.

Perhaps a more prudent plan would be to defund Visit Florida and to hand the taxpayer money back to citizens who desperately need money to survive right now? That’s my thought anyway.

Walter Carpenter, NFIB Florida Leadership Council Chairman, brought up the federal Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans and said they will not be a panacea for small businesses and that ultimately re-opening is the only choice for small businesses.

PPP loans recently made headlines when they were discovered to be misused this past week and brought into the hands of 71 publicly traded corporations including Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Shake Shack, who returned the loan after fierce criticism that continues for Ruth. The so-called small business fund was quickly exhausted and although Congress has passed an additional package, they did not close the loophole that will allow corporations to swallow the funds. Most experts say the new funds will only last 72 hours when they are released to banks.

Ultimately, there is no perfect solution to the current crisis Florida faces and coronavirus continues to spread across the state as businesses feel continued pressure to pay rent and employees without aid.

Opening too soon could have dire consequences. If the deaths rise too fast and become a public health emergency as many epidemiologists are currently warning, Florida could be forced to close again and that may tarnish consumer sentiment in the long-term for these businesses that are already struggling to survive.

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A message from our fearless leader @foodchainz: “In order to maintain a comfortable level of safety for our staff and customers, Grindhouse will not open its dining rooms on Monday, April 27th. Despite the announcement from Gov. Kemp to encourage reopening, we feel it is far too soon to allow on-site dining. That said, we will continue to offer pickup and delivery via DoorDash. We’re grateful for the outpour of support received from our communities during this difficult time. It’s been our privilege to serve you in a meaningful and safe way. We look forward to continue providing that experience while keeping the health of our patrons and staff a top priority.” – Alex Brounstein, Owner | Grindhouse Killer Burgers ________________________ So, Grindhouse Family, while we’re anxious to fully reopen, we’ve decided against it for the safety of our customers and our staff. When we feel it’s once again safe and responsible to host you in our dining rooms, we’ll make an announcement providing a specific date and details. Til then, we’re still here for your takeout needs. In addition to the regular menu, our special Provisions Menu for cook-at-home options is also still available. _______________________ Stay safe and smart out there! _______________________ See how Grindhouse and other #ATLrestaurants are responding to #GovernorKemp. Article link in bio.

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Several restaurants in Georgia announced today that they will not re-open despite Governor Kemp declaring that all restaurants will begin to re-open on Monday, as he lifts the stay-at-home order in his state. Many restaurants voiced concern for their employees health and their customers, customers also rallied to punish businesses who put their employees health in danger.

This balance will be very important for Florida to consider as Governor DeSantis pushes for the state to re-open and President Trump calls for an end to stay-at-home orders. We could have a bigger crisis on our hands with a false start and most businesses seem to be leery of that potential that could be on the horizon soon.

Public safety needs to be the top priority. I believe the working group should seek more input from doctors and ground their approach in science or they may lose consumer sentiment and employees in the long-term as well as tarnish their brands and put Florida into a major crisis. The state should seek more relief for more businesses as soon as possible, they will need it.

People don’t need to “seem comfortable” they need to actually be safe.

Follow Carlos Hernandez on Twitter @CarlosEats or visit him at CarlosEats.com