The restaurant industry gained 286,000 jobs in February, recouping about 73 percent of the losses it suffered in the previous two months.

The news is in line with how sales have trended for restaurants, particularly in the full-service industry. After traveling on a road to recovery in October, casual-dining brands like Red Robin, IHOP, and BJ’s saw same-store sales sink in November and December due to rising COVID cases and additional restrictions.

Because of the intense headwinds, food and drink places lost roughly 372,000 jobs in December and 19,000 in January. These two months marked the industry’s first decline in employment since losing roughly six million in March and April of last year.

However, restaurants have seen better fortune in 2021 as restrictions and COVID cases have receded. Hospitalizations in the U.S. have returned to October levels, and the country is now averaging two million vaccinations per day. There will be enough supply to vaccinate every adult American by the end of May, which is two months ahead of schedule.

Still, the current restaurant labor force is a far cry from normal. Roughly 10.3 million workers were on payroll last month, down from 12.3 million in the year-ago period. And according to the National Restaurant Association, operators nationwide aren’t expecting things to return to that level for a while. In a survey conducted by the organization, 32 percent said they think it will be seven to 12 months before business conditions return to normal for their restaurant. Twenty-nine percent said they believe it will be even longer, more than a year. An additional 10 percent said business conditions would never return to normal for their restaurant.

Help is likely on its way soon. The House of Representatives passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which has now made its way to the Senate. Within that large legislation is a $25 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund that’s earmarked for restaurants with 20 units or less. The grants may cover such items as payroll, rent and utilities, operational expenses, paid sick leave, food and beverage expenses, maintenance expenses, and more.

In addition to the direct aid, the House’s version of the bill would send $1,400 checks to most Americans and raise the weekly unemployment boost to $400 through August, both of which are likely to bring tailwinds to the restaurant industry.

Overall, the U.S. gained 379,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell 0.1 percent points to 6.2 percent. 

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