NJRHA’s Halvorsen describes how restaurant, hospitality sectors can evolve and survive post-pandemic

Maybe you can’t go home again; Marilou Halvorsen hopes you can at least go back to hotels.

Halvorsen is in the unenviable position of leading a trade association devastated like no other by the economic turmoil of the infectious COVID-19. For the members of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association, nothing is going to be the same after the less-than-hospitable pandemic situation.

Nationwide figures point to upward of 8 million of the country’s leisure and hospitality jobs being lost. No other industry compares to that, and the figure accounts for almost half of the industry’s total positions.

When Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency and announced measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in mid-March, the resounding majority of Halvorsen’s member businesses went dark and had to shed jobs as a result. She’s now talking with ROI-NJ about how the lights might turn back on — revealing a different environment.

ROI-NJ: What has your association been busy with in recent weeks?

Marilou Halvorsen: A huge portion of the state’s unemployment is coming from our sector — because we’re also the state’s largest private-sector employer. That’s why looking to reopen in a safe way certainly will help the financial situation in the state. However, we know, whatever reopening looks like, we know it will have to be done in a slow fashion. We submitted to the Governor’s Office two weeks ago a comprehensive plan for the restaurant industry, the hotel industry, the amusement industry and the wedding and banquet industry called Safe Stay, Safe Dining, Safe Celebration and Safe Play. It’s an in-depth guideline into a phased-in approach to reopening, as well as an industry promise of our commitment to our guests and employees to maintaining a clean and sanitary environment. You know, our hospitality businesses are just as concerned with safety of employees as guests are. So, we know that a phased-in approach is the best to instill consumer confidence. Aside from the health care industry, our industry is probably the best when it comes to sanitation. It’s something we do every day at restaurants. And hotels adhere to (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines as well.

ROI: Even if there are plans for a gradual reopening of hospitality businesses, are New Jersey’s hotels still projecting a dearth of business due to canceled events and travel plans?

MH: Hotels were considered essential at the start of this, because a portion of them were being utilized to house some medical personnel coming from out of state. And some were being used as a place for people who needed someplace safe to quarantine. So, they were working with the Department of Health and Human Services. I thought it was great; it was providing some income while also providing a community service that was highly needed. Going forward, I don’t know what things will look like. Those hotels surrounded by convention centers, such as the Meadowlands and Atlantic City area, are probably going to be significantly off for some time. Hopefully, hotels along the Shore will start seeing some business. I hope that’s part of the reopening plan. We want to keep people healthy, but you have huge beaches on the Shore — somewhere like Wildwood, I don’t think there’s a better beach to social distance at. So, hopefully, there’s some opportunity for hotels to perhaps come back there. Whether it’s June or July is up to the governor and the commissioner.

ROI: Do you think people are generally feeling apprehensive about hospitality businesses coming back online?

MH: We’re doing a video — next week, we’re going to shoot it — that’s a public awareness effort to educate people on what you should expect going back to the industry, particularly the restaurants, for the first time. What’s it going to look like when you walk in a restaurant again? We don’t want people in a crowded lobby, so we’re going to text you when a table is ready. Hosts, servers will have masks on. There will be disposable menus. Salt and pepper shakers and other shared condiments on the table are going to be gone. People are going to have to be walked through a new dining experience for the first time. But I think the procedures that are being put in place will create confidence. By doing this sort of PSA, hopefully we take some of the fear out of walking into a place where everyone has masks and everything’s different. This is what they’ll expect.

ROI: How else do you see this coming to bear on restaurants in the short and long term?

MH: I think outdoor space is going to be critical for these businesses. If you’re looking at reduced capacity inside restaurants, if you can utilize outdoor space, that will certainly help offset that limitation. You’ve seen in other states the capacity set at 25% and restaurants don’t choose to open. They’re not going to create inventory because they don’t feel like they’re going to be profitable. It doesn’t make sense for them. But if you can do something like 50% and have outdoor seating, you’re getting back into the ballgame.

There will be long-term effects. I just had a conversation with someone from DoorDash. We know third-party delivery is going to remain strong even after restaurants can open. I also think you might be seeing businesses moving out of North Jersey and New York and back into office parks in central and southern parts of New Jersey that have been empty because these businesses haven’t needed the space. You might have people continuing to work from home or just not wanted to go into a crowded area for dining, so those locations might be preferable.

ROI: You’ve had state lawmakers such as Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Ocean Twp.) introduce an emergency loan program dedicated to struggling hospitality businesses that need assistance right now. Overall, do you feel like you’re getting the attention from policymakers you’d like to see?

MH: State policymakers have been so approachable and all realize the extreme burden this has had on our industry. The problem is, something like the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program has mostly been a disaster for our industry. It just hasn’t worked for our small businesses. And elected officials on both sides of the aisle have expressed their concerns and appreciate the impact this pandemic is having on the hospitality industry. They want to do what they can to help. And we hope that goodwill lasts past the summer, because it’s going to take a long time to recover from this.

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