It's been a miserable year for restaurants. An estimated 110,000 dining establishments have already closed on a permanent basis, and another 10,000 are projected to close by the time 2020 wraps up. In fact, 37% of restaurants that have managed to survive thus far say they doubt they'll be open six months from now.
Though restaurants were generally never forced to close completely during the pandemic, (unlike nonessential retailers that had to shut down back in March), most have faced major restrictions since the start of the pandemic. Earlier in the year, many were limited to takeout and delivery service only -- a model that works well for a pizza joint but less so for a fine-dining establishment. And while many restaurants have since been allowed to reopen, some are restricted to outdoor seating only.
Clearly, that's a problem in much of the country. Now that winter is pretty much here, the idea of outdoor dining is unlikely to hold much appeal, and restaurants may need to sink far too many resources into facilitating it to make it worthwhile. Some establishments, for example, are looking into powerful heaters, fire pits, and even individual igloos where patrons can sit in groups while being shielded from the elements -- but the revenue that effort produces may not be enough to support the spending involved.
Restaurants in warmer parts of the country, however, may have a leg up this winter. In places where cold weather isn't an issue, establishments can easily continue to offer outdoor dining. The question is: Will it be enough to sustain them in the absence of full-capacity service?
Outdoor dining: an incomplete solution
It's easy to argue that right now, the typical Florida restaurant has an advantage over one in Massachusetts from an outdoor dining perspective. But let's remember that most restaurants don't have the capacity to replace their indoor dining rooms with outdoor diners in full. Some establishments may have limited patio space, and given the need to continue spacing out tables, even restaurants that serve customers all through the winter may still see a serious revenue decline.
Outdoor dining also hinges on having the weather cooperate. An establishment located in a warmer climate may still have to shutter its outdoor service during rain storms and other weather events. Plus, not all customers enjoy eating meals outside, and some would rather dine at home than grapple with wind or lower nighttime temperatures.
Therefore, while it's possible that the option to continue outdoor dining this winter will help some restaurants stay afloat and ride out the pandemic, for many, it inevitably won't be enough. Also, many of the restaurants that are in a position to offer outdoor dining throughout winter may have had a sluggish summer when it was too hot to comfortably eat outside.
It's pretty clear that at this point, all restaurants, regardless of location, need a dose of aid to keep running. With vaccines on the horizon, pumping enough cash into restaurants to help them hang on another six months could be just the solution they need, because widespread closures would hurt not only those businesses but also their local communities and real estate markets. But so far, that aid has yet to be rendered, which means thousands of restaurants all over the country risk shutting their doors in the very near future.