Take a stroll down Newbury Street or through the South End or Back Bay, and you’ll find that diners are beginning to return to restaurants in Boston. Indeed, some restaurants lining the city’s main thoroughfares appear to be operating much as they did before the coronavirus pandemic forced them to shut down for dine-in service almost four months ago. The servers are wearing masks, and there’s more space between the tables — but restaurants are open again, at least in some form.
But some restaurant operators in and around Boston have decided not to reopen yet for indoor dining, despite being allowed to by the state legislature as of June 22.
“If you drive through the city, you get this charming sense that restaurants are alive — busy patios look good from the outside, but it’s a sugar pill,” said Tiffani Faison, who owns Big Heart Hospitality Group, which includes Sweet Cheeks, Tiger Mama, Orfano, and Fool’s Errand.
The coronavirus pandemic is still raging across the United States. The data is unassailable. More than 100,000 new cases were identified over the weekend, and single-day infection records have been broken with regularity over the past two weeks. New cases of the virus are surging in at least 42 states and territories, and dropping in just two. More than 3 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. — that doesn’t account for the untold number of people who’ve been infected without being tested — and more than 130,000 people have died from the virus.
The U.S. accounts for roughly a quarter of the world’s confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths, and the situation only appears to be getting worse. And yet even when confronted with ample evidence to suggest the opposite should be true, most U.S. states are proceeding with plans to reopen their economies.
Some states that did so hastily and after little initial effort to curb COVID-19 infections — Arizona, Florida, and Texas, for example — have been forced to reimpose restrictions on businesses, including bars and restaurants, to combat new viral surges. Others — Massachusetts included — are continuing on a path of reopening, even if that path has led to catastrophe in so many other states.
Bearing that in mind, and considering data that suggests congregating indoors — and especially at bars and restaurants — contributes to the spread of COVID-19, Faison and others have decided to take a wait-and-see approach to reopening for dine-in service.
Faison’s restaurants are currently open for patio service, takeout, and delivery, but she told Eater she isn’t ready to reopen any of her dining rooms. Faison said she holds a manager’s meeting each week, at which managers from each of her four restaurants discuss the current state of the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant industry more broadly, and everyone’s willingness to move forward with reopening.
“It’s nerve-wracking and scary right now, because we all know the science around it isn’t good,” said Faison. “There’s nothing I want more than for my restaurants to survive, and for all of us to make it out on the other side of this. But what can we live with, what feels responsible? God forbid anything happens to my customers or my staff. Wanting something doesn’t absolve us from a pandemic that is 100 percent still raging.”
She likened reopening to a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos: Restaurants are trying to get as much business as they possibly can, while they can. Her fear is that reopening may create a race to the bottom, and that people may stop taking the pandemic seriously and forgo the necessary precautions to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Faison isn’t the only Boston-area chef and operator taking precautions. Jason Bond, who owns Bondir in Cambridge, recently told Eater he doesn’t think he’ll reopen his restaurant for dine-in service until at least September or October.
“Our decision not to reopen was mainly about staff safety,” Bond told Eater. “Everyone is in danger all the time right now, and we didn’t want to put anyone into any excess danger. When we heard we were allowed to reopen, we figured it wasn’t the best decision. We didn’t want to make a decision purely based on money.”
Bondir pivoted to takeout and delivery as soon as Gov. Charlie Baker ordered restaurants to close for dine-in service, but Bond told Eater revenues from the former pale in comparison to the latter. Plus, there are logistics involved with takeout and delivery — as mundane as stocking up on takeout containers and bags — that drive costs up.
“We’re losing so much money,” Bond said. “At some point, money will play into our decisions. We can’t lose money forever; there’s only a finite amount of it.”
Bond told Eater that if restaurants had been better supported by state and federal governments, and were able to fully close for several months, they probably would have lost less money than they have by remaining open and trying to make ends meet with a patchwork of takeout, delivery, and socially distanced patio and indoor dining.
In Massachusetts, the state Senate continues to drag its feet on the Restaurant Relief Act. While far from a cure-all, the omnibus package could certainly help restaurants generate additional revenue in the form of to-go cocktails, and limit the amount of revenue going out the door by capping third-party delivery app fees at 15 percent. Takeout and delivery looks more sustainable — even if just a little — under those circumstances. The state’s House of Representatives passed the bill unanimously more than a month ago, but it remains stalled in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.
Even if the state Senate does pass the relief bill, it could be too little too late. Dining rooms have already begun to reopen, after all. Massachusetts has done a reasonably good job compared to many other states at flattening the curve of COVID-19 infection, but as evidenced elsewhere in the country, the virus can surge without warning.
Unknowns about the pandemic notwithstanding, dining rooms across Massachusetts are open, at least for now. But it’s hard not to wonder at what cost. At least one thing is clear: Those that remain closed are betting on a different timeline.
• Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count [NYT]
• Coronavirus Live Updates: 17 States Sue Trump Administration Over Rule That Could Revoke Visas for Foreign Students [NYT]
• Trump Aides Undercut Fauci as He Raises Alarm [NYT]
• Where Restaurants and Bars Are Closing Again Across the U.S. [E]
• In-Restaurant Spending Can Predict Increased COVID Cases: J.P. Morgan [HILL]
• Ready or Not, Massachusetts Restarts Indoor Dining Today [EBOS]
• All Massachusetts Restaurants and Bars Will Shut Down for Three Weeks, Except for Takeout and Delivery [EBOS]
• The Massachusetts Senate Continues to Ignore the Restaurant Relief Act [EBOS]