The spread of the coronavirus across the United States has caused a generalized shutdown of public life. Schools are closed, sports are canceled, and concerts are over. This is entirely appropriate. A pandemic is war, and public gatherings at the moment give aid and comfort to the biological enemy.
But this shutdown will crush the economy, starting with the restaurant industry. In the past 48 hours, several states, including Ohio and Illinois, and major cities, including New York City and Los Angeles, announced that restaurants will be closed or limited to takeout and delivery. Shelly Fireman, a New York restaurateur who runs several diners, called the fallout “worse than after 9/11.”
The consequences of these widespread closures may be hard to grasp. Americans now spend more at restaurants than at grocery stores—something they had never done before 2015. This modern dining revolution has made restaurants one of the country’s most important sources of work. In 1990, manufacturing employment was almost three times larger than the food-service industry, but today there are about as many jobs in food service as in manufacturing. Restaurants are the new factories, and without them state and local economies across the country would fall to pieces. Food-preparation and food-service jobs now account for more than 10 percent of all employment in Nevada, Hawaii, and Florida. What’s more, with the disappearance of brick-and-mortar retail stores from many cities, restaurants have become a rare bright spot. In 2019, restaurants and bars accounted for almost half of all new leases in Manhattan.