It may surprise some that those who argue against restaurants and bars possibly opening in June include a number of folks who are actually in the restaurant industry, but concerns abound.
You’ve probably heard some version of the phrase, There are three sides to every story—yours, mine, and the truth. This seems to apply to the reopening of Massachusetts restaurants and bars right now.
Back in March, the COVID-19 pandemic caused Governor Charlie Baker and his administration to shut down dining and drinking spots other than for takeout and/or delivery, and that order remains in place right up to this day. But there’s also a reopening plan for the Commonwealth, and with restaurants being included in Phase 2 and bars being part of Phase 3, indoor and outdoor dining areas could be opening as soon as early June, while barrooms could open as soon as late June, depending on a number of factors including the potential for virus hotspots to develop over the coming days.
The reopening plans for restaurants and bars has led to confusion, frustration, and quite a bit of outrage, but what’s interesting is that the disapproval is coming from both sides. Indeed, many are saying that eating and drinking establishments can safely be opened immediately and that it isn’t the government’s place to keep them closed, while many others are stating that dining and drinking spots are nowhere close to being ready to open and that the dates should be pushed back—or perhaps not even have reopening dates set in place for the time being. So who is right? Valid arguments can be found on both sides, while some believe that the best plan is somewhere in the middle, basically agreeing with Baker’s order for better or worse.
The arguments for reopening restaurants and bars as soon as possible are many, and perhaps the biggest one is that the businesses are simply getting slaughtered right now with some estimates being that nearly half—or even more—dining and drinking spots might end up closing for good. It is no secret that rents, payroll, taxes, and other expenses are not being offset by income generated by takeout/delivery. Yes, the government is helping out in some ways, but the bottom line is that with profit margins so thin even in the best of times, the ongoing restrictions are making it seem to some like the situation is untenable as it currently stands.
Another worry is the likelihood that restaurants and bars will have to operate at a small percentage of normal capacity in order to maintain social distancing, while more than a few simply argue that the virus numbers are coming down enough so that the danger of going out to eat or drink is limited (a small minority of people also believe that the virus has been hyped up, though statistics show otherwise). Also, some restaurant owners mention that few industries have been more focused on cleaning and sanitizing even before the pandemic, so dining and drinking spots are generally safe to go to, especially with social distancing protocols in place.
It may surprise some that those who argue against restaurants and bars possibly opening in June are actually in the restaurant industry, but concerns abound as to the exposure of workers to people who may have the virus but don’t know that they have it. Another argument from those in the business is that if dining and drinking spots can only operate at, say, 25% to 50% of normal capacity, there might not be any point in opening back up because reopening expenses could eclipse the income, again because of the razor-thin profit margins (in this case, it appears that the two groups agree, though perhaps for different reasons).
Furthermore, some think it is very possible that restaurants and bars could reopen and end up being empty anyways, as diners might just decide to stay at home for the time being and continue to focus on delivery or curbside pickup. And there are also those who simply don’t want to frequent places that are potentially putting their workers in danger by reopening, saying it is irresponsible and could lead to a second surge of the virus, especially among so many working-class people (and the working poor) who are in the industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic is basically the perfect storm of this era, leading to a nightmarish situation where a huge number of people have died, countless others have gotten sick, the economic landscape has been devastated, and social isolation has become the norm in a time when people need each other more than ever. There are no easy answers to anything right now, and while it’s easy to go after Governor Baker for either acting too cautiously or not cautiously enough when it comes to the restaurant industry, it is nearly impossible to think of a “best” solution to all of this.
Hopefully such things as some sorely-needed guidance moving forward, the development of new plans such as expanded outdoor dining, and simply knowing that we’re all in this together will get us through this. And while it doesn’t seem like it right now, there will be a time down the road when people are once again doing date nights at cozy bistros, bellying up to neighborhood bars, and watching sunsets over the water while munching on fried clams.
The big question: How much damage will have been done to the restaurant industry—and society as a whole—between now and then?
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Marc is the founder of @hiddenboston, a textbook editor, a hike leader for @AppMtnClub, and a food and travel writer and commenter for DigBoston, NBC/NECN, WBZ, WMFO and indie617.