Workers in Massachusetts have been devastated by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Roughly 900,000 workers — or a quarter of the state’s entire workforce — have filed unemployment claims since the middle of March, more than 200,000 of whom work in the restaurant industry. Gov. Charlie Baker recently extended the state’s stay-at-home advisory through May 18, which means restaurants cannot open for dine-in service until at least then, though they can remain open for takeout and delivery.
Restaurants operate on astonishingly small margins. Under normal circumstances, a single week of fewer than expected covers can prove calamitous. As it stands now, restaurants in Massachusetts will have been closed for dine-in service — or entirely — for at least two months before they are able to welcome customers back into their dining rooms.
Given the economic devastation felt by business owners and workers, it might seem elementary that both would prefer a swift return to business as usual (or as close to usual as possible). Yet no one Eater spoke with for this story thinks opening dining rooms back up by May 18 is safe, smart, or possible in that timeframe.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about the state of COVID-19,” said one bartender who works at a popular beer bar and preferred to remain anonymous. “The health risks have not abated enough to justify opening that soon.”
If bars and restaurants do reopen on May 18, they will likely do so in a limited capacity, and there is likely to be a long list of guidelines restaurants and their employees must follow. In Georgia, where restaurants have begun to reopen since Gov. Brian Kemp recently announced they can resume dine-in services, restaurants have to follow a list of 39 guidelines, including caps on capacities and ensuring all restaurant workers wear gloves and masks. The governor’s announcement notwithstanding, many Atlanta restaurant owners have decided not to open, citing health and safety risks.
Restaurant owners in Los Angeles are also worried about what reopening would look like in terms of profitability and whether it would be safe. The Massachusetts General Hospital model sides with restaurant owners, suggesting the loosening of social distancing protocols in Georgia could have catastrophic consequences.
As in Georgia, Massachusetts will likely require restaurant workers to wear gloves and masks whenever dine-in services do resume, but doing so isn’t exactly simple in a time when personal protective equipment is in short supply. Just last month, the state had to enlist the services of local billionaires (the Kraft family, which owns the New England Patriots) to procure a shipment of 1 million N95 masks from Chinese manufacturers. And the state had to literally do so in secret in order to avoid confiscation from the federal government.
Reopening with caps on capacity presents another suite of problems: Restaurants won’t be able to make the profits they were making before the cessation of dine-in services, and restaurant workers — especially those workers reliant on tips — may not be able to earn enough money to make ends meet.
“We’re not going to be allowed to open at full capacity, and tipped employees who are currently on unemployment may not be able to cover the cost of living when they get back to work,” said the bartender who preferred to remain anonymous, suggesting that some tipped employees will earn less money if restaurants reopen with caps on capacity than they are via unemployment insurance benefits. (Indeed, some states want to send residents back to work to stem the tide of unemployment claims. The grotesque calculus, it seems, is that some loss of life is acceptable as long as unemployment budgets are balanced.) “The way we go back when we go back is giving me anxiety. Being at home is surreal, but it’s safe.”
Reopening won’t be the same for every bar and restaurant. What works for a cocktail bar may not work for a chain steakhouse with a seating capacity of 300; what works for a fast-casual taqueria may not work for a bar that doubles as an arcade or a bowling alley.
“I mean, where I work, half of our income is compromised,” said an employee of a bar and restaurant that features a bowling alley, and who also wished to remain anonymous. “I highly doubt there will be big parties, and bowling seems out of the question. And as much as I miss sitting at a bar — and I miss it a lot — the idea of it is too weird to contemplate right now.”
Several restaurant owners told Eater they think May 18 is unrealistic.
“For me, it’s too early,” said Anthony Caldwell, the chef and owner at 50Kitchen in Dorchester. “Would I love to open again? Absolutely. Would I feel safe doing so? Not at all.”
Caldwell opened his restaurant in late February, just weeks before Baker ordered restaurants to shut down for dine-in services. He’s been operating takeout and delivery services with a skeleton crew Thursdays through Saturdays. He’s staying afloat for now — but opening a restaurant is expensive, and operating as a three-day-a-week takeout and delivery restaurant isn’t going to pay the bills in the long term. Loan deferments only last so long, after all.
“I can do takeout, delivery, Grubhub, you name it, but I can’t do it from a casket,” said Caldwell. “I’m not going to commit suicide to pay you.”
(On top of that, the widespread sentiment within the industry is that delivery apps like Grubhub are parasites. As many restaurant owners will attest to, ordering from them often does less to help local restaurants, and more to enrich already very, very rich tech companies.)
While Caldwell is eager to scale back up and invite customers back into his dining room, he’s not sure it will make much of a difference if capacities are capped. The maximum capacity of his restaurant in the time before the novel coronavirus was just 19. He figures he could safely entertain just six diners with capacity limits and while adhering to strict social-distancing guidelines.
“I just don’t know what to do, because I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Rebecca Roth Gullo owns the Gallows, Sally’s Sandwiches, and Blackbird Doughnuts, the latter of which has six outposts in and around Boston. She also thinks the May 18 date is optimistic and believes that sometime in June — a date after which schools would ordinarily be getting out — is more realistic.
Roth Gullo told Eater her restaurants have retained all staff and have also kept electricity and coolers running. As a result, she thinks her restaurants are well-positioned to scale back up once they’re able to reopen.
“We’ll come in five days before we can reopen — it will almost be like we’re opening a restaurant,” she said. “Not from scratch, but as if you purchased someone else’s restaurant and reopened it. You happen to get the key, along with the debt.”
The nightmare scenario for many restaurant owners is wherein restaurants are allowed to reopen for dine-in service, only to be told they must shut down again due to another wave of COVID-19 infections.
“No one wants an ‘open, close, open, close’ situation,” said Roth Gullo. “How do you manage that if that happens? When we do open, we want to open for good. But there are still a lot of unknowns.”
Roth Gullo says she intends to reopen her restaurants as soon as the state gives the green light, but she realizes there will be restrictions — and those restrictions will raise a lot of questions regarding safety and profitability. Additionally, diners won’t have the same reserves of disposable income they might have had before the pandemic struck.
“Operating at half capacity is going to be an issue,” she said. “We’re hoping guests will be flexible with us.”
Indeed, those guests may simply not feel comfortable coming in at all.
Michael Serpa is the chef and owner of Select Oyster Bar, the just-opened Grand Tour, and the forthcoming Atlántico. He told Eater that no one he’s spoken to within the restaurant industry thinks May 18 is realistic. Even if restaurants do reopen for dine-in service this month, Serpa doesn’t think diners will be too keen to return.
“I think some point in June for Boston, but restaurants will be hard-pressed to get people to come in, and the likely restrictions will be a huge challenge if you have a smaller space,” said Serpa. “[It] would be better to wait until cases drop much more and testing is ramped up so people have a better understanding of what is going on, [which] may give diners more confidence to go out.”
Grand Tour is currently offering a limited takeout and delivery menu, but as so many other restaurant owners have noted, takeout and delivery hardly account for a lion’s share of a restaurant’s normal business: Serpa told Eater that takeout and delivery account for one-tenth of Grand Tour’s business, under normal circumstances.
“And that’s just one-tenth of one spot — I haven’t even opened Select [for takeout and delivery] yet.”
As the current reopen date — moveable goal post though it may be — inches closer, restaurant workers and owners are faced with a suite of difficult questions. None of them has an easy answer.
• Nearly Quarter of Labor Force Has Filed Jobless Claims [SHN]
• Massachusetts Restaurants Have Cut 93% of Staff Due to Coronavirus Pandemic, Loss in Statewide Sales Expected to Exceed $1.3 Billion in April [ML]
• The Massachusetts Restaurant Closure (Except for Takeout and Delivery) Will Continue Through May 18 [EBOS]
• What Does It Really Cost to Run a Restaurant? [EBOS]
• Georgia Governor Finally Releases Restaurant Guidelines Ahead of Monday’s Reopening Day [EATL]
• As COVID-19 Cases Soar, Atlanta Restaurant Owners Say It’s Too Soon to Reopen [EATL]
• Here’s What 18 LA Restaurant Owners and Chefs Think About Potential Reopenings [ELA]
• A Patriots Plane Full of 1 million N95 Masks from China Arrived Thursday. Here’s How the Plan Came Together. [BG]
• In state’s Intense Chase for Protective Equipment, Coronavirus Isn’t the Only Rival — the Feds Are, Too [BG]
• Understanding the Unemployment Crisis [DM]
• 50Kitchen, a Story of Second Chances, Celebrates Its Grand Opening in Dorchester [EBOS]
• How Can I Get Food Delivered Without Using a Parasitic, Ethically Dubious Delivery App? [ESF]