Unsettled: How South Florida's Restaurant Industry Is Working to Rebound

The National Restaurant Association estimates that one in three restaurants will not reopen. 

NBC Universal, Inc.

Restaurants are a driving force in South Florida’s hospitality and tourism industries, but when the pandemic hit, their sales plummeted. The National Restaurant Association estimates that one in three restaurants will not reopen. 

With a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, some businesses fear new restrictions could be on the way.

Many local restaurants have already implemented multiple safety measures since the beginning of the pandemic - from requiring masks and other personal protective equipment to social distancing markers. 

Esi Shabani, the owner of Rice Mediterranean Kitchen, is among them.

“Our workers’ lives. They also are thinking, are they going to be let go of? Are they going to be doing more hours or less hours? And all those things,” Shabani said, when asked about his workers’ concerns.

NBC 6 Responds first spoke with Shabani in March. At the time, he had temporarily shut down the restaurant’s dining room, thinking it would be for a couple of weeks.

But in mid-March, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order to stop dine-in service.

In May, Miami-Dade and Broward counties were given the green light to start reopening. But due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, restrictions were back in July and didn’t loosen until the end of August. 

“Financially, it has put a great toll on us. Our sales compared to last year now, we are in Phase 3, we are down 35% from last year and those numbers are all of our profits,” Shabani said. 

According to a recent study from Florida International University, Miami-Dade’s hospitality industry has taken a multi-billion dollar hit. 

“You can look at the recession of 2008 and you can look at 9/11, there are disruptions there but not to this magnitude,” said FIU’s professor Eric Beckman. “This is not something that we were prepared for.”

The study from FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management estimated there were $742 million in direct spending losses to restaurants in Miami-Dade county between March and August. 

“As we look at the industry, we are looking at are we going to be able to recover and how soon are we going to be able to recover,” Beckman said. 

At Rice Mediterranean Kitchen, Shabani says they did receive money from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

“It did help us for a short period of time,” Shabani said, adding it wasn’t enough to “saved” them.

Shabani says a full recovery may not happen until more people feel comfortable returning to the restaurant.

“We need to find a way to make sure that the customer who walks through that door, even if they spend $12 or $15, they feel comfortable,” Shabani said. 

In a statement about the safety of hotels and restaurants, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association told NBC 6: “Across the nation and here in Florida, there has been an increase in reported COVID-19 cases; however, media reports that reference updated CDC guidelines have made unfair and irresponsible allegations about the safety of hotels and restaurants. There is no data to support these allegations, which can cause unnecessary panic. Florida’s hospitality industry has always had stringent guidelines for sanitation and safety and have significantly increased those standards and processes since the beginning of COVID. This pandemic has decimated our industry, whose members are trying to safely operate, welcome guests, and rebuild their livelihoods. To falsely point fingers and release hyperbolic assertions at a time when we are fighting tooth and nail to survive is shameful. Our community businesses need our support now more than ever.”

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