As the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to spread, on-premises restaurant dining has plunged in certain U.S. regions, according to data from reservation service OpenTable.
On Dec. 18, the number of people seated at restaurants nationwide was only 2% lower than the same day in 2019. But on Dec. 20 it was 33% lower than two years ago, as reported by Restaurant Dive.
Some of the biggest declines were in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, while New York City was among the hardest-hit cities. South Carolina was unscathed—with the amount of seated diners about the same—while Nevada’s numbers actually rose.
OpenTable did not tie the declines to Omicron in its most recent State of the Industry dataset.
The news comes as many consumers had gravitated back to pre-pandemic, away-from-home dining habits, according to a fourth-quarter survey of 2,200 respondents by marketing firm Epsilon.
According to the survey, 95% of consumers had dined at a restaurant in the past three months and nearly three quarters (73%) had eaten indoors.
Restaurant operators like Darden—whose holdings include full-service establishments like Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse—are putting the best face on the latest surge of pandemic cases.
While Darden’s Q2 sales increased 37% year over year, its executives were grilled last week about the possibility of another falloff in on-premises dining.
Chairman and CEO Gene Lee said Darden hadn’t seen any changes in regional behavior as of Dec. 17, according to an earnings call transcript from Seeking Alpha.
Citing a New York Times map of COVID cases showing a “surge heading towards New England,” Lee said, “that’s been a part of the country that’s been most sensitive -- into maybe what I would call overreacting.”
He added, “There's a certain percentage of the population that is going to react to this, but there's a certain set of it that's just going to continue on. All you’ve got to do is look at stadiums and concert halls to see who those people are.”
Not surprisingly, safety regulations like mask mandates ranked #1 in news stories related to food in 2021, according to the 18th annual Food News Study from marketing communications company Hunter.
Hunter’s study—in conjunction with Libran Research & Consulting—surveyed 1,002 U.S. adults about what they considered the top food news stories.
Number two behind safety regulations was the subject of labor shortage at eating establishments.
On a brighter note, #9 was news about celebrity-inspired meals at Burger King and McDonald’s, and #10 was Lady Gaga’s limited-edition partnership with Oreo cookies.