A look into the Baker administration’s decision to close restaurants and bars at 9:30 pm—including its tie-in to the 10 pm stay-at-home advisory—and the ripple effect it may cause.
After a string of phases and steps designed to help reopen dining and drinking spots in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker took a step back this month due to pandemic alarm bells. As you might expect, it is not a popular decision, at least in some circles.
Just like with the commencement of Phases 2 and 3 and the steps that went with them, the Baker administration is taking heat from both sides for mandating that restaurants and bars stop serving diners at 9:30 pm, with some saying that the order goes too far while others say it doesn’t go far enough. So, why did the governor issue this order, and how might it impact an industry that already seems to be on the ropes? The first part of the question seems to have a pretty straightforward answer, but the second part is far more complex.
To get everyone up to speed, as of Friday, Nov. 6, all dining and drinking establishments in Mass had to stop serving customers who are dining in by 9:30 pm (they can stay until 10 pm to finish their meals, while takeout and delivery are allowed to continue past 9:30). In addition, a stay-at-home advisory was also put in place—from 10 pm to 5 am—in which people are asked to be off the streets except for things such as work, school, emergency medical care, getting takeout food, and going to the drug store or market. It appears that the 9:30 pm order is at least indirectly connected to the stay-at-home advisory, as it gives folks time to get home from wherever they were eating (and by the way, the 9:30 order also applies to indoor recreation facilities, as well as liquor sales at stores, markets, and restaurants, the latter referring to takeaway alcohol orders from dining spots).
Needless to say, the new executive order concerning dining in will result in some hard decisions by the owners of restaurants, with at least some places already deciding to go into winter hibernation based on the new rule. These decisions will undoubtedly fuel anger from those who think that Baker really didn’t need to take this step, perhaps with the view that the virus is equally as contagious at 9 pm as it is at 9:30, 10, or at any other time, so why bother to shut down places at all? Others counter by saying that it’s more of a way to keep people from partying deep into the night, especially after having a few too many drinks which could result in hugs, handshakes, fist-bumps, and more intimate activities, all of which could help spread the virus.
There are those who think that the Baker administration’s order was too weak and ineffective and that more needs to be done, including the possibility of closing down indoor dining areas once again because of the possibility of COVID-19 being easily spread in enclosed spaces. The arguments against this include more devastation coming to an industry that has seen countless businesses close already, not seeing a real connection between indoor dining and the spread of the virus because of strict cleaning policies and (in some cases) advanced ventilation systems, and there are those who simply don’t see the virus as being a big deal and continue to think that not only should indoor spaces remain open, but everything should be fully open with no restrictions at all (which, like it or not, will simply not happen until a vaccine/therapeutic is in place).
Considering the arguments on both sides, it seems that a middle path is pretty much the one that Baker is taking here, though such a path could lead to stricter measures; if the numbers keep going up, don’t be surprised if the next step is for us to return to a lockdown, like we had this spring, where indoor spaces do close and outdoor spots could as well. Even if they don’t shutter completely, it seems unlikely that many restaurants will keep their patios and decks open as temperatures start to drop below freezing.
This brings us back to an earlier question—how will dining and drinking spots specifically react to the ruling, which allows indoor and outdoor dining for now, but sets a time that takes away valuable hours each night? Closing for the winter certainly seems like an option, especially if restaurant owners are able to get a break on rent (and that does seem to be happening in large numbers). Ramping up takeout and delivery service works in many cases, especially for spots that offer food items that ship well—pizza, wings, burritos, burgers, pasta dishes, Chinese-American food, and the like.
Staying open and hoping for a subsequent stimulus package is another option, but given that there are so many unknowns with the federal government right now, it can’t be assumed that a new stimulus package will even happen. By the same token, hoping for a vaccine and/or therapeutic can be a dangerous game as well, though it does appear that we are at least getting closer to one or the other (or both). And for those where the 9:30 pm ruling isn’t such a big deal anyways, perhaps nothing much needs to be done; restaurants in this category include those places that have been relying on outdoor patios (as the weather gets colder, staying outside past 9:30 doesn’t seem like a viable option), family-friendly restaurants that typically don’t tend not to stay open late anyways, and obviously breakfast and lunch spots.
On its surface, the 9:30 ruling is certainly worrisome, especially considering that steps taken since June have generally been forward moves. It indeed brings a sense of dread, making many wonder what the next shoe to drop could be, and when. But for a number of restaurants, it may not be a crushing blow, especially considering what Baker could have ordered, and yes, the next announcement from the governor could be much, much harsher. In short, while the order to make restaurants close early is frustrating to more than a few restaurant folks, the truth is, it could have been a whole lot worse.