There may be light at the end of the rollback thanks to vaccines, but is it too late for some?
After a minor rollback for Massachusetts restaurants was put in place in November, a slightly more substantial one came down the pike recently, and this one has at least some folks in the industry in a panic just as the dark days of winter approach.
The combination of new restrictions, a virus that is resurging in a big way, and colder weather all but ending outdoor dining is being offset at least a bit by the news that vaccines are on the way to residents of the Commonwealth, which leads to a rather surreal feeling of a race against time for a huge number of businesses. Will dining and drinking spots be able to hang on until the vaccines bring us back to a relative sense of normalcy? Or is the writing already on the wall for at least some places? The answer probably won’t be known for a while, but it is pretty obvious that the next few months will not be easy for an industry that is already teetering due to the pandemic.
The Dec 8 announcement of the rollback to Phase 3, Step 1 unsurprisingly brought out all the armchair warrior comments on both sides, where Gov. Charlie Baker somehow went too far while also not going far enough, which is a good trick when you think about it. But a lot of restaurant owners, managers, and workers seem to be seeing this in a slightly different and more realistic way—that while Baker is trying hard not to shut down indoor dining spaces as was done in the spring, he may be indirectly guiding restaurants to do just that by making it nearly impossible for places to keep the lights on with so many restrictions in place.
Whether he is actually trying to do that or not, it’s pretty apparent that the virus is really making the decisions here, whereas even if the governor for some reason allowed dining and drinking spots to fully open back up with no restrictions, most folks would probably still not eat inside restaurants simply because COVD-19 is everywhere now and it’s just too risky to do compared to relying on takeout/delivery or cooking at home. Indeed, a lot of restaurant folks seem to be on the same page now that the rollback has taken place, where they feel that even with vaccines being on the horizon, dining spots simply cannot survive with all of the restrictions placed on them unless they get federal/state help, be it via financial support (such as grants), license fees being reduced, a delay on tax payments, a renewed moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, and third-party delivery fee caps, to name a few. And without outside help, even more restaurant workers could soon be out of jobs, meaning that they would need help as well, be it via stimulus checks, increased/extended unemployment benefits, or the aforementioned moratorium on evictions.
Speaking of vaccines, we are indeed finally on the cusp of people being able to get them, but in Massachusetts the vaccine timeline is a rather lengthy one, with three stages being set up for people who live in the Commonwealth, meaning that some won’t be able to get vaccinated until June of 2021 at best. What this means is that getting back to normal or even a “new” normal won’t be happening right away, and even with warmer days starting to filter in by March or April and patios slowly returning, the virus will probably still be making some people think twice about going out to eat possibly until the summer.
Can restaurants survive on a fraction of their normal business until then? Considering that it will have been well over a year of reduced business by that point, the answer is probably a pretty emphatic “no” unless help comes from the government, or perhaps from landlords via decreased rents, the latter of which is one reason why so many dining spots are currently able to go into “hibernation” for now and basically waiting things out thanks to some landlords working out deals with the restaurant owners. But how long can they wait? If restaurants in hibernation hope to reopen in March or April and the vaccines are still being given in June, there will certainly be a period of time where dining spots will be open but mostly empty, relying once again on takeout and delivery (and good weather for their patios, if they have one) for what could be a period of several weeks or more.
Some have said that the next few months could be the most trying period that the restaurant industry has seen in close to 100 years, so the hope continues that dining and drinking spots somehow get government help, the winter is mild enough for limited outdoor dining, and there’s no disruption in the vaccine timeline. And, of course, that the current surge in the virus simply starts to dissipate, not just for the restaurant industry and business in general but more importantly because we’ve simply seen way too much illness and death over the past year or so. For now, the bottom line continues to be the same—continue to wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance from others as much as possible, tip restaurant workers 20-25% or more (because their lives are basically in danger every single day), and know that vaccines are on their way, hopefully in time to save an entire industry that is pretty much a big, wobbly house of cards right now.