The scores of temporary closings are likely hiding an ugly truth—that many of the places that are shuttered aren’t just closed for the time being.
By now, it seems clear that the coronavirus pandemic could end up changing entire industries for years to come, and perhaps nowhere is this more true than the hospitality industry, which includes restaurants and bars.
Some warning signs started popping up during the latter part of the winter, but few if any could have indicated just how devastating the outbreak would be to dining and drinking spots, and honestly, we still don’t know exactly how bad it will be when all is said and done. If you had said even a few months ago that something invisible to the naked eye could potentially cause more than half of all restaurants in the region and bars to close for good, you probably would have been met with a blank stare.
But all bets are off now, and the industry is in deep, deep trouble for a number of reasons.
When folks started seriously worrying about COVID-19 in early March, there was much talk about “social distancing” within eating and drinking establishments, including spacing tables farther apart, keeping crowds down—especially in bars and nightclubs—and basically just following best practices so that the spread of the virus could maybe be contained. It was soon obvious that this virus meant business, and the timing couldn’t have been worse with St. Patrick’s Day coming up and dining and drinking spots across the region prepping for what is one of the biggest days of the year for many. As a result, the “perfect storm” basically took place in which public officials started putting out warnings about social distancing; at the same time, more than a few watering holes had long lines of people outside and huge crowds inside, and in these days of social media, the spectacle was captured for everyone to see—including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker. As we learned later, those scenes helped motivate the governor to close all restaurants and bars except for takeout and/or delivery, with the order starting on St. Patrick’s Day itself.
Even if Baker hadn’t put restaurant restrictions order in place based at least in part on the scenes of lines and crowds, the decision would have likely come anyway, as the coronavirus soon took over every aspect of our lives and Boston went from being one of the hottest parts of the country to a ghost town, with eerie scenes of empty streets downtown and traffic reports that were no longer even needed. All of this, of course, decimated the local restaurant industry so quickly that it left everyone in a daze, not really knowing what to do or where to turn. Some restaurant owners simply closed their places for the time being while laying off staff, while others went the takeout/delivery route with varying results (some have since given up on the idea, as it wasn’t working well enough to continue).
Fast-forwarding to today, the local restaurant industry is in shambles, with concerns including insurance companies not paying for coronavirus-based closures, scores of workers suddenly finding themselves out of work, owners changing their concepts in order to stay in business, and diners relegated to takeout, curbside pickup, delivery, or simply giving up on restaurants altogether, focusing instead on cooking and/or shopping at grocery stores. And with the “surge” on its way, where hospitals could be stressed to the max with huge numbers of patients, it is possible that people won’t want to go out at all during the middle of April when the peak is expected, which means more trouble for dining spots if takeout and curbside see a huge dropoff.
For those in the restaurant industry, the big question is, what will the local dining scene look like on the other end of this, when the coronavirus starts to dissipate and restrictions start getting lifted? No one knows, really, as the scores of temporary closings are likely hiding an ugly truth—that many of the places that are shuttered aren’t just closed for the time being. There will be big names among the fallen for sure, including some that will absolutely shock people to the core; it’s simply a matter of which iconic spots will remain dark once the lights at other places start to turn on once again.
Maybe, just maybe, things will not be quite as bleak as they seem, especially if a bill recently filed on Beacon Hill could make insurance companies retroactively cover restaurant closures. For the spots that make it through this crisis, they can hopefully get back up to speed, bringing back as many of their workers as they can and hoping that diners start returning without hesitation, which is not a given by any means. But if the curve is flattened and the surge isn’t as bad as predicted, maybe the bottled-up demand for dining out might not be affected all that much by the fear of sitting in a dining room or at a bar.
As we wait for the hit, there are some things that you can do to help restaurants stay in business right now. Perhaps the best way is to buy gift cards, which gives dining spots a quick infusion of cash that is what many need so desperately now. One note, though—if you are given a gift card (or buy one for yourself), it’s really important not to use it as soon as the restrictions are lifted and dining rooms and bars open back up. Why is this? Well, when you use a gift card, because it has already been purchased, the restaurant isn’t getting any sorely-needed money from your meal, and if everyone uses gift cards as soon as dining spots get going again, it’s possible that a place could serve 100 meals or more on a given day and end up with no income to show for it when they close for the night. So try to hold off on using the gift cards, at least for a while.
Another way to help is to do delivery, which more and more seems to be the best option, especially as we approach the surge and few go out except to buy necessities. Of course, this means that delivery people will have to go out to get you your food, so don’t forget to tip them—and tip them a lot (20% or more is not uncommon right now for both takeout and delivery). Also, if you’re worried about social distancing, it’s perfectly fine to pay for the meal online or over the phone and include the tip with the order, and the person bringing the food can simply leave it out front.
These are scary times we live in right now, and it sometimes seems that it will never get better, but it will—and when it does, hopefully the restaurant industry (and all industries) will come out of this ok. More importantly, we can only hope the problem peters out a bit thanks to the safety practices in place. Only time will tell, though, so keep washing your hands, don’t touch your face, find a cool-looking mask to wear when you head out, and keep your fingers crossed for all the local businesses out there that are facing some hard times.