Quarles advocates for exact reopening date

Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles speaks Tuesday at the Owensboro Convention Center during his “Restaurant Roundtable” discussion about the hardships facing restaurants because of the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles brought his “Restaurant Roundtable” discussion to the Owensboro Convention Center to hear about ongoing local hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the roundtable, which mainly attracted elected and community leaders, Quarles advocated setting an exact date for fully reopening and dropping restrictions instead of waiting for 2.5 million of the state’s population to be vaccinated — a number set by Gov. Andy Beshear.

As of Tuesday, the state reported more than 1.7 million Kentuckians had received one dose.

“…The restaurant industry needs clear guidance on when Kentucky can open back up,” Quarles said. “We need a reopening date and not a reopening metric. …Sometimes it takes restaurants weeks if not a month to fully staff, be prepared, stock their freezers with food.”

During the past year, a number of restaurants and others businesses were forced to close because of the pandemic and the restrictions that came with it. Currently, the state allows restaurants to operate at 60% capacity.

Stacy Roof, president and CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association, told the small roundtable group that there were about 7,700 restaurant locations, or eating and drinking places, across the state prior to 2020. It’s an industry that employs 200,000 people, according to Roof. Those numbers, however, do not include bars, she added.

“We’ve lost a few hundred (restaurants) that we know of,” Roof said. “We’ve lost some that we don’t know if they’ll reopen. …It’s a $9.2 billion industry in just Kentucky; it’s the second-largest private employer and it’s only second to health care.”

The restaurants that have survived the pandemic are now facing a lack of workers to fill their server, cashier and kitchen staff positions.

Quarles said that the extra government benefits that came about because of COVID-19 are contributing to the labor shortage.

“…Stacy and I have heard that there needs to be a conversation about the level of government benefits and whether or not that’s keeping people from joining back into the workforce,” Quarles said.

Along with restaurants, tourism has also been affected by the pandemic.

Mark Calitri, president of the Owensboro-Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau, told the roundtable group that local tourism revenue dropped more than 40% during the past year.

However, Calitri said some restaurants are seeing an increase of customers with sports tournaments and other events returning.

“…People are wanting to come back,” Calitri said. But, he added, “I think the brakes are still on.”

Prior to being in Owensboro, Quarles made roundtable stops in Lexington, Louisville and Bowling Green. He will be traveling to communities in eastern and northern Kentucky in the coming days to host more roundtables.

“…We want to encourage people to get the vaccine but also reward our small businesses by opening up because other states have already done it,” Quarles said.

Don Wilkins, dwilkins@messenger-inquirer.com, 270-691-7299

Don Wilkins, dwilkins@messenger-inquirer.com, 270-691-7299

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