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Majority of SC restaurateurs doubt they'll make it 6 months if social distancing continues

Restaurant customers dining outdoors

Eateries in rural areas may do better at surviving than those in more competitive areas as the state tries to reopen the shuttered economy, a new survey shows. Lauren Petracca/Staff File

The future of South Carolina’s hospitality industry looks relatively bright to restaurant owners, according to early returns from a COVID-19 Impact survey being conducted by the College of Charleston and Lander University. But there’s a catch: The most bullish restaurateurs don’t live in places reliant on the hospitality industry.

“What’s interesting is the more rural counties are more optimistic,” says Mike Brizek, interim dean of Lander’s College of Business and principal investigator on the project.

When Brizek designed the 20-question survey, which is being distributed primarily through chambers of commerce, he made sure to ask respondents to indicate their home county, since researchers suspect it will be uniquely challenging for restaurants in the state’s tourist areas to recover.

Based on the 150 completed surveys received thus far, the hypothesis appears sound.

“Rural restaurants are more supported by their local clientele,” Brizek says. In places such as Myrtle Beach and downtown Charleston, “with increased competition and decreased density, it’s going to be harder.”

Still, Brizek reports restaurateurs in cities and small towns alike are counting on additional federal and state relief to relax the crimp that closures and customers’ anxieties have put in their cash flow. They’re pressing for measures such as mortgage relief and commodity subsidies, which Brizek points out could ultimately enhance South Carolina’s tax revenue.

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Because of the urgency of the situation, Brizek hopes to publish his findings by late summer. That’s around the time that restaurant owners say they’ll be forced to reckon seriously with the prospect of permanent closure, assuming they’re still expected to comply with Centers for Disease Control advice on social distancing.

According to Brizek, most respondents say they can only afford to stay open for 4-6 months under current conditions, despite South Carolina not setting any new rules for restaurant operations.

“This is just anecdotal right now, but what we’re seeing is a trend to non-viability,” says Brizek, adding that 70 percent of respondents assert they wouldn’t ever reopen if the state shut them down in connection with a second wave of the pandemic.

One of the problems with surveys is people aren’t always the best forecasters of their own behavior. In this case, though, Brizek says the respondent group consists largely of well-known and successful restaurant group leaders: When they claim they’re in trouble, he’s inclined to trust them.

Restaurant owners can access the survey at surveymonkey.com/r/5WHX73H

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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