High Wire bartender Ron Blois interacts with a customer at the brewery's Wilmington taproom. Carolina Public Press / Mark Darrough

When the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention announced its relaxed COVID-19 guidelines last week, followed on May 14 by Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to immediately end most capacity and mask requirements, businesses owners across the state expressed immense relief.

After a year when most industries saw dwindling sales numbers and skyrocketing unemployment, business leaders hoped the announcement would help return the economy to a degree of pre-pandemic normalcy.

Lynn Minges, executive director of the N.C. Restaurants and Lodging Association, likened the announcement to an early Christmas present. 

“We were a bit surprised on Friday, when he in fact made the announcement that not only was he lifting the mask mandate, which was consistent with what the CDC had announced on Thursday, but also lifting capacity and social distance restrictions,” Minges said.

“Those really had been our greatest concern all this time. So, it came as a surprise to us after months of asking for some relief — but it was a most welcome announcement.” 

But challenges remain, as restaurants, hotels and factories scramble to find employees after hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians filed for unemployment during the pandemic. 

Employees wanted

The employment shortage hit the hospitality industry especially hard. Jane Anderson, who heads the Asheville Independent Restaurants trade group, said the biggest challenge facing the mountain town’s restaurant industry is to incentivize workers back to work.

Although ending the capacity limits was a welcome surprise, her roughly 130 restaurant members still face a large shortage of willing workers. 

“The governor’s capacity restrictions the past two months hasn’t mattered a whole lot, because the restaurants can only have the capacity that they have the staff to serve,” Anderson said. 

She estimated AIR restaurant members employed more than 6,000 workers before statewide shutdowns in March 2020. Although the group bounced back from an estimated 1,500 employees at the height of the pandemic, a shortage of about 1,500 employees remains, she said.

The state’s entire hospitality and leisure industry employed 510,000 people in February 2020, according to Minges. By the end of March 2021, only 430,000 workers remained — a shortage of 80,000.

Republican lawmakers attempted to address the issue with a proposal of back-to-work bonuses of up to $1,500 in House Bill 128. If it passes in its current form, the legislation would also cut pandemic relief benefits for those who skip job interviews.

Democrats encouraged their Republican colleagues to provide child care subsidies, also noting that employers would find more applicants with higher wages. 

“It’s no surprise that our industry is struggling in terms of getting workers to take jobs. It’s not unique to our industry, and it is impacting our supply chain in significant ways,” Minges said. 

The state’s employment shortage exists alongside growing confidence among business owners. A First Citizens Bank Small Business Forecast published in early May, showed 78% of respondents believe their businesses will grow over the next year, up from 69% in September. 

Minges believes the reasons for this market conundrum are already well known: People receiving unemployment checks are motivated to remain unemployed, many are forced to remain at home with their children, and others avoid the risk of reentering the workforce when so many North Carolinians have not been vaccinated.

She then addressed a fourth factor that she said has been “lost in the mix.”

“When restaurants were shut down in dining services, we laid off about 250,000 members of our workforce, all in one day,” Minges explained. “And the workers did what you would expect them to do: Many of them went out and found jobs in other sectors that were hiring. So, part of our challenge, and our opportunity, is how do we lure those people back?”

Worker shortages in other industries have also impacted hospitality businesses during the pandemic. According to Minges, short-staffed food supply companies have contributed to scarcities in items like chicken and ranch dressing, while sudden meat shortages last year contributed to quadrupling beef prices.

“So, it’s having a huge impact on our industry,” Minges said. “We’re eager to get through this so that we can really recover and rebound as we expect it to in the aftermath of COVID-19.”

Industry response

Several large companies, each employing thousands of North Carolinians, said they will continue to follow CDC guidance.

Bank of America, one of the state’s largest employers, is not changing its work-at-home policies after the CDC relaxed its guidelines. A company spokesperson said 85% of its employees, 18,000 who work in North Carolina, are currently working from home.

“When appropriate, our plans are for employees to return to their offices in phases, depending on employees’ roles and local health guidelines,” according to a company spokesperson. 

Red Hat, an open-source software developer headquartered in Raleigh, did not change any COVID-19 guidelines following the governor’s announcement. 

“We are currently defaulting to work from home until Sept. 30,” according to a spokesperson. 

She said more than 30% of the company’s employees, including about 2,500 in the Raleigh area, were already working from home before the pandemic.

“We were ahead of the game when the pandemic hit, instead of starting from scratch, we just had to scale our efforts,” according to the spokesperson.

She also noted that, although remote working has been effective, the company began focusing on supporting employees’ mental health, which was affected by an “always on” experience. 

In response, Red Hat instituted “Recharge Days,” when once a quarter employees are asked to “step away from the keyboard and phone to reenergize.” 

A gray area

Law professor Lawrence Gostin, director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, criticized the CDC’s new recommendations that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in outdoor crowds and most indoor establishments. He said they will likely lead to confusion in the marketplace because there is currently no method to determine who has and who hasn’t been vaccinated. 

Anderson said most restaurants in Asheville are maintaining their mask and social distance policies as a cautionary measure. But she recognized that her town, which she said has been described on social media as “the maskiest town” in the country, sets higher COVID standards than most. 

After the May 14 announcement, Anderson said six local restaurant owners called her almost immediately, each in one way or another asking, “What are we going to do?” She reminded them that private businesses can still require customers and employees to wear masks and maintain social distancing measures. 

“Most (Asheville restaurants) have taken a very cautious approach to lifting all mask requirements. In fact, I can’t think of a restaurant I’ve walked into the past couple days that weren’t asking people to wear masks inside the restaurant,” Anderson said.

“I think part of the reason is that everybody had worked so hard to follow the guidelines, and (May 14’s announcement) turned their world upside down. They almost feel safer continuing on to see how the world ends up.”

In the coastal town of Wilmington, the business community has deployed less strict mask and social distancing policies. 

Ellie Craig, president of the Cape Fear Craft Beer Alliance, said she thinks the region’s breweries will see a large increase in customers because of Cooper’s announcement. 

“I think we will begin to see more people not wearing masks in public if it’s not required at that specific establishment,” Craig said.

Craig also heads sales and public relations for the city’s oldest existing brewery, Front Street Brewery in downtown Wilmington. Front Street has encouraged staff to get vaccinated, according to Craig, who estimated 76% have done so. 

Chris Frosaker, whose Hi-Wire Brewing Co. has taprooms in Asheville, Raleigh, Durham and Knoxville, said 99% of his employees are vaccinated. His brewery’s approach to the pandemic is to protect employees and trust the science. 

“We want everybody to be safe and accessible and able to work,” Frosaker said.

“And in order to do that, we’ve had a strong belief that we need to trust the CDC. Three of the four original members are scientists; they were once pharmacists. We believe science. It hasn’t been complicated. We just follow the CDC guidelines. You know, if the CDC says you need to wear a mask, dammit, we’re wearing a mask.”

Since the pandemic began, mask-wearing has become a politicized national debate. Earlier in the pandemic, Republicans opposed the measure at higher levels than their Democratic counterparts.

Following the governor’s announcement last Friday, Hi-Wire Brewery put up signs encouraging customers to wear masks and stay socially distanced while respecting employees. Carolina Public Press / Mark Darrough

Frosaker’s employees dealt with patrons who refused to wear masks by repeatedly asking for compliance and sometimes asking customers who continued to refuse to don a face covering to leave.

“Everyone has different beliefs,” Frosaker said. “This is the United States; you’re entitled to your own beliefs. It’s why we’re a great country. But it’s hard. Our staff is worried about getting sick and paying the bills, while also doing a good job. And the last thing they deserved was to get yelled at for just trying to keep them safe.”

Frosaker said Hi-Wire will no longer require customers to wear masks when moving around the various taprooms, although signs on the walls highly encourage unvaccinated patrons to do so. For him, it’s a “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” philosophy.

“If you want to wear a mask, go ahead and wear a mask,” he said. “If you don’t want to wear a mask, that’s fine. Just be cool. … But at the end of the day, what does it hurt wearing a mask? It’s not a big deal.”