Sixteen months after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted Maine’s economy, business is roaring back.

Maine’s high rate of vaccination and low incidence of infection have made the state a much safer place to move around in public, and the end of the official state of emergency opens the doors to out-of-state visitors. Many who lost their jobs are back at work with money to spend. People who never missed a paycheck may have a little more in the bank this summer because of canceled vacations during the pandemic year.

Just because demand is back, though, diners shouldn’t assume that their favorite restaurants and bars are back to normal. Demand for dining out might be at pre-pandemic levels, but the capacity to deliver the service that diners remember could take a while to build.

Everybody needs to keep in mind that no sector of the economy has been disrupted as thoroughly by the pandemic as the food and beverage industry.

Restaurants were forced to close except for takeout, and when they were allowed to start serving customers, outdoors at first, they had to follow strict rules regarding masking and distancing. The unemployment rate for leisure and hospitality workers hit nearly 40 percent in April 2020, and although it has dropped steadily, it is still higher than in most other sectors.

The owners of food service businesses are running into a number of obstacles as they try to return to full volume. A worker shortage that was already apparent in some areas before the pandemic has become more critical, as people who used to work in kitchens have transitioned into other lines of employment.

Short on staff, some restaurants are limiting the number of reservations they can accept and are cutting their hours of service.

Added to the workforce challenges is a change in customer expectations.

Restaurants started serving carryout meals in 2020 in a bid to survive. It was a tough transition for businesses that were designed for in-person customers. Over the last 16 months, some diners have gotten used taking their meals to-go, and they want to keep doing so, even when there is a dine-in option.

Many restaurants are struggling to serve both kinds of customers, trying to figure out how to meet both the old customer expectations and the new ones.

Rising food prices and shortages of some items are also making life difficult for the people who run hospitality businesses.

This summer, customers should go back to their favorite places that need their patronage. But they should be prepared to accept that the people serving them are still working their way through some persistent challenges.

It will be important for everyone to remember is that no one is coming out of the pandemic exactly the way they went into it. As we go back out, we shouldn’t forget to be patient.


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