Cracks emerge in the restaurant recovery as Delta variant rages

Cracks emerge in the restaurant recovery as Delta variant rages

Posted: Aug 11, 2021 1:11 PM
Updated: Aug 11, 2021 1:11 PM

Americans living in high-risk Covid states are starting to shy away from restaurants, malls and airports as the Delta variant rapidly spreads.

And real-time economic indicators suggest the Delta variant is slowing the recovery in some of the hardest hit sectors, even though the impact is not yet being felt nationally.

The findings show how even 18 months after the pandemic erupted, Covid is still calling the shots in today's economy — especially in states with lower vaccination rates.

"The next stage of the recovery requires consumers to leave the home, go on vacation, go to stores, restaurants and malls," said Stuart Kaiser, strategist at UBS. "The fact they are showing less willingness to do that is a negative indicator."

Restaurants, more than almost any other industry, have already been crushed by the pandemic. A staggering 90,000 US eateries have closed permanently or long-term during the pandemic, according to estimates by the National Restaurant Association.

Now the Delta variant is adding challenges to existing headaches caused by a shortage of workers and rising prices.

Reservations and foot traffic slow

Restaurant reservations slumped last week in states struggling with the latest Covid-19 wave.

Last week, Jefferies found, restaurant reservations on OpenTable fell 20% below the same point in 2019 in five high-risk Covid states: Alabama, Idaho, Louisiana, Miss and Wyoming. That's a big reversal from early July when reservations in those states were 10% above 2019 levels. Florida — another state grappling with rising Covid-19 infections — also saw a drop in restaurant reservations.

Aneta Markowska, chief economist at Jefferies, called the restaurant trend a "yellow flag" for the economic recovery.

"Our high frequency data is suggesting that the rising Covid wave of infections is now impacting economic activities," UBS strategist Ajit Agrawal wrote in a note to clients late last week.

Foot traffic at quick service restaurants nationally was down about 25% last week from 2019 levels, according to an analysis provided to CNN Business by research firm InMarket. That's a significant shift from the week of July 4, when foot traffic was up 35% compared with the same period in 2019.

'One step forward and two steps back'

The worry is that these trends could delay the badly needed recovery of the restaurant industry.

There are still 1 million fewer restaurant jobs than before the pandemic, although the sector has added back jobs in each of the last three months. About 40% of small restaurant owners said they couldn't cover their rent in July, according to a survey by Alignable.

"It's like one step forward and two steps back with this pandemic," said Carlos Gazitua, president of Sergio Family's Restaurants, which owns 13 locations throughout South Florida.

There was a "little softness" in restaurant sales last week, he added, especially in communities with older populations. However, he said overall sales haven't taken a hit because delivery and takeout orders are up.

Gazitua, who also serves as a director on the executive committee for the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said there has been a welcome uptick in employees who want to get vaccinated.

"If you don't feel safe going to a restaurant, we're not doing our job and we're going to lose sales," he said.

Warning signs for malls, air travel

Malls, another part of the economy still reeling from Covid, are also getting squeezed by the Delta variant.

As of last week, national mall foot traffic stood at just 53% of 2019 levels, according to InMarket. That's a sharp reversal from the week of July 4 when mall foot traffic was 4% above the same point of 2019.

InMarket found similar declines in customers heading to auto dealers, big-box stores, drug stores, furniture retailers, grocery stores and home improvement retailers. All now stand well below the same point of 2019.

Another potential trouble spot: Air travel.

As of July 3, domestic air travel, measured by tickets issued by US travel agencies and online booking companies, stood at just 3% below 2019 levels, according to the CNN Business Economic Recovery Dashboard. However, domestic air travel has since slowed and as of July 23 was down 22% compared with the same point in 2019.

As of July 23, domestic air travel from Louisiana, a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates, was down 10% compared with two years ago. That number was up 11% compared to 2019 as of July 9. Domestic air travel from Florida experienced a similar slowdown.

"Rising Covid infections seem to be affecting air travel," Agrawal wrote in his UBS report.

UBS also found "softness" in credit card spending for a range of activities, including dining out, home improvement and arts & entertainment.

That's why UBS's Big Data Nowcasting model is downgrading its forecasts for job growth, retail sales and industrial production further below consensus estimates.

"We notice economic activities slowing in the latter half of July, from retail sales, to services spending, to industrial activities, coinciding with the new wave of infections," Agrawal wrote.

The last chapter of the pandemic?

The good news is that the slowdown in consumer activities in high-risk Covid states does not appear to be threatening the broader economic recovery. Economists aren't worried about an imminent recession.

"What's encouraging is these impacts are very, very localized. It's really not showing up on the national level," said Markowska, the Jefferies economist.

That's because the five states with low vaccination rates account for just 3.5% of total US GDP, according to Markowska.

Of course, that's little consolation to the local restaurant owners who are struggling to pay the rent.

Still, there are hopes on Wall Street that this Delta wave will peak quickly, as it has in other nations, allowing the restaurant recovery to get back on track.

"I feel like this will be relatively short-lived," Markowska said. "Two months from now we will hopefully look back and say this was the last chapter in the pandemic, and now the economy can fully reopen."

The-CNN-Wire
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