Even if independent restaurants in the Boston area and elsewhere do receive loans from the government, it will still be a bumpy ride for many if not most.
There now seems to be hope. Hope that the coronavirus crisis may finally be getting ready to release its grip on the Boston area. Hope that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic may be closer than the start. It’s a terrifying time for sure, with deaths seemingly reaching a peak. Hospitals—while not at capacity—are still nightmarish places, with exhausted frontline workers putting in endless and undoubtedly scary hours doing their best to save people’s lives. But new cases seem to be dropping, or at the very least leveling off, and that indicator could mean that the death rate may soon start to drop as well.
People’s health is certainly the most important issue. The subject of life and death, however, also applies to businesses, including and in many ways especially restaurants and bars, and how they will (or won’t) come out of this now that it appears (some) restrictions could be lifted over the coming weeks.
When the outbreak started to take hold back in mid-March, the restaurant industry quickly entered uncharted territory, especially once Gov. Charlie Baker issued what basically amounted to a shutdown of dining and drinking spots, with restaurants and bars only allowed to offer takeout and delivery. Scores of workers were subsequently laid off or furloughed, customer visits dropped like a rock, and owners of eating and drinking establishments quickly found out that no matter how good their takeout/delivery setups were, it would never be as profitable as having patrons sit in a dining room or at a bar.
As a result of so much tumult, horrifying scenarios started playing out in people’s minds, including the possibility of many if not most restaurants and bars never reopening, workers losing not only income but health insurance, owners losing everything because of insurance apparently not covering losses as a result of the virus, and Boston and other communities becoming ghost towns for the foreseeable future with the possibility that things will never truly be the same.
Now that we’re heading toward the end of April, the situation remains dire, but many restaurants and bars remain open for takeout or delivery, while a number of others that had been temporarily closed are starting to reopen for takeout/delivery as well. It seems that maybe, just maybe, if dining spots can make it until the restrictions are lifted (May 4 for now, but that could change), they stand at least a fighting chance, though there are so many unanswered questions remaining: Will diners even come back to restaurant and bar spaces, or will they simply continue to focus on takeout/delivery? Will owners be able to find workers? Will independent restaurants be able to compete with chains, which often have easier access to money? This last question is particularly worrisome, as there seem to be signs that the odds are stacked against them, so much so that in some cases, walking away from a business might be easier than basically starting over from scratch.
One recent issue that indicated independent restaurants could be fighting a losing battle was when restaurant chains such as Shake Shack, Ruth’s Chris, and Sweetgreen were granted huge monetary amounts as part of the CARES Act and its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a government stimulus package designed to help small businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic via forgivable loans. Because any restaurants with up to 500 workers could apply—and because the number of workers is per restaurant, not per chain—a business such as Shake Shack, which might have 40 or 50 workers per location, was able to receive stimulus money, and with the program initially running out of money within two weeks, a lot of independent restaurants have been left in the lurch, not knowing if they will ever see any money that could help them maintain their payrolls and stay in business. The three chains mentioned above have since returned the money, but other chains have not as of this writing, and while there is talk of adding more funding to the PPP, the whole situation has left a bad taste in the mouths of indie restaurants and bars everywhere.
Even if independent restaurants in the Boston area and elsewhere do receive loans from the government, it will still be a bumpy ride for many if not most. In answer to the question of whether customers will return to dining rooms and bars, no one really knows for sure yet, but it appears that seating will definitely need to be changed in many cases so that some form of social distancing can continue, because the coronavirus will not be going away completely anytime soon. This means fewer seats, which in turn means fewer customers, so dining and drinking spots may need to keep at least part of the focus on takeout and delivery in order to survive.
As for finding workers once the restrictions are lifted, one positive might be that before the pandemic started, the number of job positions greatly exceeded the number of workers; this means that even if a number of restaurants close and others don’t hire as many workers as they had before, things may be more balanced, which means owners might not have a huge problem finding workers. And for those who are unemployed, they might not have a terribly difficult time finding jobs, especially since there has been much chatter about a number of restaurant workers deciding to leave the industry while many others who are immigrants have simply gone home to be with family and find work in their hometowns.
Does it remain a scary time to be a restaurant owner or a worker in the industry? Absolutely. But it seems like the industry will ultimately end up surviving and, while probably looking nothing like it did before the pandemic, could be in better shape than some think—especially if dining spots are able to pivot in response to any increasing trends in a post-pandemic world such as a continuing focus on curbside pickup or delivery, for instance.
The one wild card that could make everything go to hell is if the coronavirus returns in the fall or winter, or worse, if it somehow spikes again this spring or summer without ever really leaving, since the chances of having a treatment or a vaccine are much greater by next winter than, say, in a month or two. Let’s obviously hope that this doesn’t happen while also keeping our fingers crossed that the restaurant industry can stem the bleeding and find a way to put itself back together again with as little pain as possible.
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.