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Cambridge Mulls Another Shutdown of Indoor Dining and Other ‘Non-Essential’ Indoor Activities

As COVID numbers rise, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon are aiming to keep some children in onsite schooling by sacrificing indoor businesses

Stock photograph of a chef in a restaurant kitchen TheBigPineapple/Getty Images

After a mid-March shutdown during the first local COVID-19 spike, Massachusetts brought back indoor dining on June 22 — with various restrictions on capacity, distancing, and hygiene measures. Gov. Charlie Baker recently added curfews on table service and liquor sales, while expressing a reluctance to fully shut down indoor dining again statewide. But in Cambridge, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon think the state isn’t moving swiftly enough to curtail the new surge of COVID cases, and they hope to get Cambridge to consider its own second shutdown.

Siddiqui and Mallon submitted a late policy order at a November 16 city council meeting; watch video footage of the meeting here, starting around 26 minutes into the third hour. The order cites a daily increase in Cambridge’s positive COVID cases and a recommendation from unnamed epidemiologists to close “bars, casinos and gyms, and other non-essential business activities to stop the spread of COVID-19 as a way to keep schools open.” (Cambridge schools, as Councillor Timothy Toomey noted after Siddiqui and Mallon presented the order, are already mostly closed anyway, with the exception of kindergarten through third grade and some students with special circumstances. Toomey also noted that Cambridge doesn’t have casinos and only has a few gyms, so the order would mostly target restaurants.)

Siddiqui and Mallon’s order acknowledges that any efforts would have to be part of a regional response “in order to not unfairly penalize Cambridge restaurants and small businesses,” as customers would just go nearby to places like Somerville or Arlington if Cambridge unilaterally shut down, but their goal is that the Cambridge city manager “confer with the Metro Mayor’s Association to close indoor dining, gyms, casinos, and other non-essential indoor activities as soon as possible.” This would be in conjunction with several city departments collaborating to organize “a small business and restaurant relief program.” Siddiqui and Mallon might have some luck getting Somerville onboard, as over the course of the pandemic, Mayor Joseph Curtatone has held Somerville to a slower and stricter reopening plan than the statewide guidelines.

Toomey exercised a charter right to push the policy order to a future meeting, declining to immediately support a policy of such “magnitude” without further discussion and time for potentially impacted people to give input.

Indeed, only one restaurant owner was able to register discontent in time for the meeting. The agenda packet contains an email from Ruth Ryan Allen, owner of the 86-year-old Cambridge bar Paddy’s.

“To suddenly have this brought up in a city meeting with no notification is reprehensible,” wrote Allen, noting that Paddy’s has not been able to reopen since the March shutdown but is on the verge of a December reopening. “We have taken out loans, maxed out our credit cards, and put my home, bills, and credit in jeopardy. I did not receive any PPP loan nor the loan from the city! We have no funding!! I would be able to rehire my employees, and try to sustain my business, with this small opening in December. ... Unless you supplement all my earnings, my monthly bills, pay my loans, I will not survive [another shutdown]. ... Hooray, you got rid of us. Another part of Cambridge history erased.”

With the order likely to be coming back up at the next meeting on November 23, restaurant and business owners have a little bit of time to register complaints with the council. Robert Harris, who owns Cambridge restaurant and catering company Season to Taste, has already done so, urging the council “to not adopt the resolution to shut down all non-essential business.”

“This resolution with no aid or relief on the federal, state or city level would be devastating to my business and I would immediately lay off half of my staff, if not all of my staff,” Harris wrote in a November 19 email to the council. “Unilateral[ly] shutting down all ‘non-essential’ businesses is a blunt tool with devastating social and economic impacts. Based on what I am reading 70% of the recent spread is from smaller social gatherings. I would argue that my restaurant, which adheres to all safety protocols and is inspected and regulated by the city, is a far safer option than folks gathering in their homes. If you shut down all businesses and a large number of people are instantly unemployed six weeks before the holidays, the net result will be more unregulated private social gatherings, therefore more spread of COVID. Why not keep businesses open and step up inspection and enforcement instead of closing?”

Harris’ email goes on to urge the council to “try to make it through the next four to six weeks, and then shut down coupled with aid if need be,” noting that “there appears to be no aid coming our way until January.”

Agendas and other information for November 23’s special meeting (3 p.m.) and regular meeting (5:30 p.m.) will be posted soon on the city council portal, confirming whether the order will be coming up for discussion again at this next meeting or further in the future.