None of the segments or articles amplifying the push to reopen restaurants sought input from a medical professional or anyone else who might suggest that opening the doors next week is reckless.
As restaurants reopen in pockets across the country and revelers return to bars with and even without protective face covers, it’s only natural for Mass residents to contract FOMO on a scale that people in states which open prematurely will become infected with COVID-19. The #ReopenAmerica crusaders may be alone in rushing out to their favorite chain digs to treat service industry workers like toilets, but they’re not alone in yearning for an evening on the town.
Likewise, the restaurateurs who want to reopen for walk-in customers as soon as possible—as opposed to as soon as is medically prudent—are not the only business owners who wish they could pull in more income at this time, or some income at all for that matter. Nor are those clamoring for stay-at-home orders to be lifted alone in being aggravated with the current situation or in facing seemingly insurmountable financial hurdles. Take it from a guy whose livelihood relies on a publication fueled by nightlife advertisements—I get it, this purgatorial darkness is unbearable.
Nevertheless, as much as I take pride in my connections to and history working in the service industry, and in my reportorial support of restaurants and hospitality workers in particular—or maybe even because I value those relationships so much—I feel compelled to respectfully shred the outrageous open letter sent to Governor Charlie Baker via a newly formed association calling itself the Massachusetts Restaurant & Business Group. Led by Dave Andelman of the Phantom Gourmet, who also recently issued a public request to open the Mendon Twin Drive-In he co-owns (and inspired lawmakers to sponsor legislation which could expedite that process), the front of about 100 establishments wrote:
We’re a group of owners and managers of restaurants and related companies. We want to reopen restaurants, safely and legally, on May 19, 2020, provided that virus hospitalizations aren’t rising. Thirty days after that, we want to open at full capacity. Towns and cities would be allowed to slow this timetable if local virus hospitalizations are rising now or in the future. However, these localities would announce an alternative time frame immediately so that we and our hard-working employees can plan accordingly.
Andelman’s entourage is lucky to have chosen hospitalizations as a metric to lean on. Those have gone down every day since the letter was published earlier this week; the number of confirmed new cases in Mass, however, has increased every day since May 11 (669), with 870 on May 12, 1,165 on May 13, and 1,685 yesterday.
If you’re waiting for hard facts or references to relevant medical research from docs or locales that are ahead of the Bay State and have way more experience with modified seating and serving conditions, don’t hold your breath under that mask. Rather, the letter offers revenue and jobs numbers that are obviously horrifying, but then fraudulently attempts to link those troubling stats to unsubstantiated non sequitur claims about the industry’s superiority to certain businesses that have been allowed to stay open essentially unhindered. The missive continues:
Hospitality provides 300,000 jobs in our state. 150,000 were laid off, and more jobs are lost every day. 60,000 jobs may never return. We can operate safer than a Walmart, Target, Home Depot, or a supermarket, which hosts many more customers per day, are not usually as clean, and six feet distance is close to impossible. We’re one of the cleanest, most regulated, industries. Unlike the owners and presidents of most of these multibillion-dollar, multinational companies, we live here and work in our stores, so our safety measures impact us and our families. Cleaning and sanitation for the safety of customers and employees has been the most crucial component of our industry for decades; it’s what we do first and foremost.
For reassurance, the group tacked on a list of precautions that restaurants will take to “open legally and safely,” including the following measures:
- Reconfigure our patios, dining rooms, and bars to meet the standard of six feet social distancing
- Sanitize the facilities
- Create marked lines for waiting outside, eliminating inside waiting
- Sanitize menus after each use or replace with disposable and online menus
- Meet National Restaurant Association reopening standards
- Create protocol to shut down and sanitized if an employee tests positive
- Block half the restroom facilities (if room holds more than one customer)
- Wear masks
- Require customers to wear masks when not seated
- Post pictures and videos on social media to show that we’re meeting standards
As is clear from the superficiality of the plea and particularly the promise to showcase said standards on social media—as if you can spot coronavirus on a Facebook post—the Massachusetts Restaurant & Business Group effort is little more than a marketing stunt. It’s a proposal based on gut feelings and disregard for every person who will have to work in these establishments as well as those who live with them and everybody they interact with and so on because, well, that’s how infections can spread. It’s hard to see how it is worth making the effort to explain to the reopen crowd that their freedom to do whatever they feel like doing whenever they want to do it doesn’t apply here; but the concept should be as simple to comprehend as the logic behind OUI laws, even for an unscrupulous fatalistic fringe—again, it’s pretty simple, that’s how infections can spread.
I swear that my beef isn’t simply rooted in a longtime disdain for Andelman’s Phantom Gourmet, a marketing stunt in and of itself that makes a mockery of earnest food reporting. Nor am I condemning this act of grotesque ignorance just on the hunch that most of the signatories are partial to a psychotic president whose support of the same multinationals the group’s letter derides over small businesses is demonstrable. I wouldn’t have acknowledged the issue at all had it not been so breathlessly amplified by the local press, from right-wing ringleader Howie Carr, who laughably called the movement to reopen restaurants a “rebellion,” to MassLive, to the Boston Globe and its cousin Boston.com, to WBZ, which airs Phantom Gourmet, and more than a dozen others. Many featured the voice of Andelman or one of his fellow petitioners as the sole subject; none of the segments or articles sought input from a medical professional or anyone else who might suggest that opening the doors next week is reckless.
By now it’s clear that all research and reason have been removed from the menu. When every major news outlet in town falls in line with a propaganda piece pushed by the Phantom and a minority of Mass restaurant owners, it’s hard to see how we’re not just as screwed here in the Commonwealth as people in states where proudly unmasked patriots are rushing to the closest beaches, parks, and nail salons.
I hope these predictions are off; my partner and half of our writers at DigBoston work in hospitality, and I would love for someone to be able to crack on me eight months from now because I was terribly wrong since COVID-19 cleared up in June thanks to sunlight and prayer. On the other hand, I don’t think that’s what the future holds, and if this restaurateur request or any other less-than-scientific ploy to rush into reopening leads to subsequent surges, I want to be on the record as having questioned the intelligence of proposals that others echoed without context or accompanying criticism.
Given that strategy, it may seem like I will win either way. But that’s now how I see it.
At this point, I think we’re all going to lose.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.