Governor Kemp joins GRA for a Restaurant Industry Update Webinar

Posted By: Desmond Hague COVID-19 , Government Affairs ,

“I know this pandemic has been brutally tough in the restaurant industry,” Governor Brian Kemp acknowledged in his opening statement of the Georgia Restaurant Association Restaurant Industry Update Webinar on Tuesday May 26th, confirming what a lot of us already knew.

The webinar was moderated by experienced restaurateur Brad Usry, President of Fat Man’s Hospitality in Augusta, Georgia. Mr. Usry serves on the Governor’s Georgians First Commission, a group of business owners established by Governor Kemp to review state regulations, policies, and procedures with the goal of streamlining government, removing inefficiencies, and securing Georgia's place as the top state for small business in the country.

Governor Kemp made a brief opening statement outlining some numbers and facts of the Coronavirus pandemic in the state of Georgia.

The Governor noted that his goal of testing 100% of nursing home residents in the state is well underway and that, “as of Friday [May 22nd], [the state of Georgia] had tested 61% of [its] nursing home residents.” With more testing to come and an increased ability to process more tests per day, the Governor has highlighted the state’s new ability to detect the virus. Today, 4.8% of the state population has been tested. To put that into perspective, two weeks ago about 2.5% of the population had been tested. In 2 weeks, the ramped-up testing has almost doubled the amount of people tested in the first 8 weeks.

The reopening of the state, and restaurants in particular, was approved to begin on May 14, 2020 by an executive order issued by Governor Kemp. He noted that since May 1st, the number of hospitalized Covid-19 patients has decreased by 43%.  The path to reopening has been marred by constant change, but the Governor did thank everyone, restaurant owners, operators, and staff, in particular, for sticking in there and continuing to work with him and his office.

Before taking on some questions pertinent to the restaurant industry, the Governor gave us a few more comments on the future and how our industry is dealing with all the constant change:

“We need to keep convincing people that this is not over with; we are fighting two battles right now. The Battle against the disease and the battle to restart our economy. I have been to 4 restaurants in the past couple of weeks trying to rebuild confidence in the industry. I have been very impressed with how the restaurants have handled everything and Vice President Pence commented on it when he was here as well.”

Once the Governor concluded his opening remarks, Brad Usry began asking him some questions about Georgia’s economy and what the future has in store.

Usry: What is Georgia’s Economic forecast in the next 6 months? In the next 12 months?

Eliciting a laugh, Kemp responded with an emphatic, “better than the last month!” He continued: “I think we are seeing some encouraging signs. Frankly, we just don’t know,” admitting that we will need to see the income numbers for this past month to get a better handle on the situation. Sticking true to his roots as a small businessperson, he observed that “as a small businessperson, you have what’s coming from your cash register every day, so your gut feeling is as good of an indicator as anything.”

Reflecting on the Memorial Day holiday weekend, the Governor made some observations:

“Most of the hotels on the coast were full this weekend, which probably means a lot of restaurants did pretty well down there. State parks were full, so people were traveling. I saw a cool video of someone from North Carolina who went to Savannah because we were open. We are going to continue to see that in the numbers, but you still hate to predict what that looks like.”

He ended his response to the first question with a bit of cautionary advice, proclaiming, “We shouldn’t move too quickly and fall back—that would be devastating. But we cannot move to slowly that we put people in a position where they aren’t going to make it.”

Usry: Based on a mandated budget reduction of 14%, how will this effect services Georgia offers to small businesses? For example, health inspections, licensing and permits, DOR services, etc.

“I think it’s probably very logical to say, sure service with be affected,” the Governor responded. “I know that when I was in the Secretary of State offices, we had to reduce our budget. We made 20% cuts to the budget, but after the initial blow our service got better.” He then called attention to the fact that after relying more heavily on technology, the office saw drastic changes in success. “Technology, innovation and ingenuity will be crucial, and they can help the industry so that the consumer doesn’t see much of an effect.” Technology, innovation and ingenuity are all things that the restaurant industry has used to shape what we see today, so his positive style of thinking may help a restaurateur come out intact after the crisis is over.

He finished answer the question by stating:

“As the government, we need to keep putting our budget dollars where they will have the greatest effect. Education and health care will be the biggest. I ask my office constantly, what are some things the government can do to help restart our economy? I have some experience in the past doing that throughout my various roles, and I think there are a lot of things we can do to try and help.”

Usry: As things start to get back to “normal,” does your office have a plan to help rebuild consumer confidence?

“Consumer confidence comes from a lot of places. Hopefully my meal with Vice President Pence in a restaurant instills consumer confidence. Hopefully my visits around the state when I visit our mobile hospitals and stop to eat in a restaurant can build consumer confidences. We cannot instill confidence from our living rooms, that isn’t good for anyone.”

The Governor hopes that his efforts to show that we are ready can help build back some of the confidence we lost in the industry and he admits that it will take some time for more and more people to venture out and eventually feel comfortable again. It is important to remember that no matter what you do and what precautions you take, you cannot force the consumer to feel safe again, you can merely make the suggestion that they are safe to dine at your establishment.

Usry: We have received a lot of specific questions about possible future guidelines, like when social distancing will end and when will face coverings be optional, is this something you could address?

Reflecting on the most recent executive order, Governor Kemp stated, “we just made a pretty significant change when we changed the square footage regulations and the number of people dining at the same table, so I think that will be the norm for the next week or so. I know nobody likes wearing these [dang] masks, but we must keep enforcing it. That would have to be changed down the road as scientific advice and regulations change.”

Reiterating that the Governor’s orders in this time of crisis have all come from scientific data, he also mentioned that changes regarding social distancing and the bans on large gatherings will have to come later, admitting that he doesn’t “see social distancing down yet until the fatality rate decreases even more drastically.”

Usry: How can we help you?

The governor gave the people of the restaurant industry some insight into how his office has been making decisions and offered some advice to restaurateurs who want to help now:

“I think the biggest way restaurants can help is by continuing to work with us. If there are things that aren’t working let us know. We want you to succeed. If you have suggestions, tell us. We have been flexible to help you and we know you have been too.

As we continue to go into the summer and the numbers begin to look better, we need to continue to work together and be smart. We don’t necessarily have to have a second wave, if people continue to follow the guidance and follow the advice then we can move through this.

If you have any suggestions, please contact my office or Karen at the GRA and we will seriously consider them. The worst thing we can do is say no to them, so keep them coming and we can continue to work together.”

As the Governor signed off, a spirit of unity between his office and the restaurant industry was easily sensed. In this trying time, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty, and we know that the constant shifts in regulations are difficult to deal with as business owners and employees. Brad reflected after our time with the Governor, “I think the industry has a friend [in Governor Kemp]. If we have suggestions, as restaurateurs, go through the GRA and Karen’s office. You have a direct line to him there.” His reflection solidifies one of the comments the Governor made in his opening statement after acknowledging the difficulty everyone is facing right now, “I appreciate the work that Karen and her team at the GRA have done, working with us to create some of the guidelines. This isn’t an easy process and we know you have helped a lot.”