With COVID-19 numbers surging nationwide and many cities and states taking steps backward in their reopening plans, each new press conference by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker brings renewed anxiety to the state’s restaurant industry workers, who are wondering if there will be a return to a shutdown like earlier this year, when restaurants were only able to offer takeout and delivery for nearly three months.
Not that the limited-capacity outdoor and indoor seating currently allowed will save every restaurant, but restaurant owners and employees worry that a second shutdown without accompanying relief efforts will jeopardize the survival of the state’s independently owned restaurants and small businesses even more. The industry is calling on national and local governments to push through legislature stepping up relief, such as the Restaurants Act.
Baker’s latest press conference, on November 23, was primarily focused on introducing the state’s new COVID-19 public awareness campaign, “Get Back Mass.,” but in the final minutes, an attendee asked for Baker’s thoughts on Cambridge considering an indoor dining shutdown. (Brought up at a city council meeting last week, it will be up for discussion again this evening, November 23.)
While Baker expressed sympathy for businesses with multiple locations statewide having to play by different rules in different communities, he supports communities making stricter decisions about COVID-19 than the state framework requires. The Western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield, for example, has already pulled back to an early stage of its reopening process, including suspending indoor dining, after a surge in cases, and earlier this year, Somerville moved at a slower reopening pace than the state allowed, with Mayor Joseph Curtatone expressing concerns about the city’s particularly high population density.
When pushed on whether Massachusetts data indicated a need to reconsider a statewide indoor dining shutdown, Baker said that the data doesn’t show a need “at this time.”
Cities and states nationwide have been stepping back from indoor dining in recent weeks, or at least considering it. Next door, Rhode Island is putting a “pause” on a variety of indoor activities from November 30 through at least December 13, including closing bar areas of venues and limiting restaurants to 33% capacity indoors, with early closures mandated and only one household allowed per table. Philadelphia has banned indoor dining through the end of 2020; San Francisco, too, has temporarily shut down indoor dining. New York City is bracing for an indoor dining shutdown that may occur soon.
As for the city of Boston, last week Mayor Marty Walsh described another shutdown as a “last resort” — but one that might have to be considered in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Boston’s patio season is about to end for all of the new patios that were allowed to spring up on public property during the pandemic; December 1 is the end date. Outdoor dining setups on private property will be allowed to remain in operation indefinitely.
For now, local eyes are turning to Cambridge to see what happens at tonight’s meeting. Preliminary discussion at last week’s meeting included two important points: (1) Proponents of an indoor dining shutdown know that it would have to take place with regional cooperation, or else locals would just take their business to restaurants in nearby areas, like Arlington and Somerville; and (2) a shutdown should occur in conjunction with several city departments collaborating on “a small business and restaurant relief program.”
Given Curtatone’s willingness to hold back Somerville’s reopening earlier in the pandemic, it seems likely that Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon, who introduced the policy order considering the second indoor dining shutdown, might have luck getting him onboard in terms of regional cooperation. Following a conference call over the weekend with public health experts and local municipal leaders, Curtatone reportedly said that “the evidence suggests that additional measures may be necessary to control the spread,” although he didn’t specify what measures those might be.