- The number of diners seated at restaurants in the United States fell sharply from Dec. 18 to Dec. 20, according to data maintained by OpenTable. The number of seated diners on Dec. 20 was 33% below the number of diners seated on that day in 2019, while on Dec. 18 that number had only been 2% behind its 2019 total.
- A greater than usual fall in daily traffic may indicate the latest surge of COVID-19 cases, driven by the omicron variant, are driving diners out of restaurants.
- Cities like Washington D.C., and New York City, both of which have seen COVID-19 cases explode in the last two weeks, experienced sharp drops in restaurant traffic, with traffic lagging 53% behind 2019 in Washington D.C. and 60% in New York City.
Rising COVID-19 cases continue to batter the restaurant industry. Throughout the country, restaurants have shut down after staff tested positive, especially in cities where omicron has driven spikes in infections. CDC data indicates the number of cases in the U.S. has jumped sharply in the last three weeks, from a seven-day trailing average of 86,899 on Dec. 1 to 149,331 on Dec. 20. This increase was unevenly distributed, according to data maintained by the New York Times, with the Northeast and Midwest bearing the brunt of the recent surge in cases.
The impact of omicron is shown in data maintained by OpenTable, which indicates a drop in diners seated at restaurants. But the decline is also uneven across the country. Northern states like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, saw seated diners fall by more than half on Dec. 20 compared to two years ago. Only one state in OpenTable's data set, Nevada, saw higher numbers of seated diners compared with 2019, while South Carolina's level was virtually identical.
While Dec. 20 was a Friday in 2019, and would typically have higher traffic than a Monday, other Fridays in 2019 did not have such harsh disparities in traffic when compared to this year. For example, Dec. 6 and 13, and Nov. 30 were all Fridays in 2019. These dates in 2021 saw only about a 20% drop in traffic versus two years ago, meaning the disparity in daily seated diners has gotten suddenly worse as this month has continued.
Falling traffic and closures related to staff infections may erode the recovery in the restaurant industry. The Independent Restaurant Coalition said as many as 86% of independent restaurants may close without relief, and many have lost their ability to take on new debt due to low credit scores. If dine-in traffic continues, omicron may replicate the impact the delta variant had on restaurants. The delta variant strained labor markets, caused large numbers of diners to change their eating habits and drove down restaurant sales in August.
The recent surge in cases prompted the Biden administration to release a plan to help combat the rise, including its intention to distribute 500 million free at-home test kits in early 2022. On Dec. 17, Jeffrey Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, also said the administration was determined that omicron not disrupt businesses and schools.
But data, like OpenTable's, show it may have already.