In restaurant's throughout the Boston metro area on Saint Patrick's Day weekend, empty dining rooms greeted customers rather than long wait times as residents began to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In an OTTO Pizza on the campus of Boston University Saturday, a server working the lunch shift waited idly at the restaurant's bar waiting for patrons to walk in. Though the shift is traditionally a busy one, Camilo Cardona, said that the restaurant had been slow since the news of COVID-19 broke.
“The traffic in the area is a lot lower, and students are away, and that’s a big part of our business here,” Cardona said. “[Closing indefinitely] is worst case scenario, but it’s definitely a possibility. I can’t really even wrap my mind around what that’s going to be like. It’s so different from our daily life.”
Cardona is not alone. Throughout Boston, restaurants and service-industry workers reeled from the impact of the sudden halt to public life caused by widespread fear and uncertainty about COVID-19. On Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts. Shortly aftewards Baker, following the lead of several other states, moved to ban public gatherings of 250 people or more. Baker’s orders were done in tandem with the announcements of every major sports league to suspend their current seasons, the shuttering of Broadway and the news of hundreds of presumptive cases of coronavirus infections in Massachusetts.
On Sunday, Baker ordered restaurants to suspend all dine-in service and only offer take out beginning on Tuesday through April 6. He also banned all public gatherings of 25 people.
The abrupt slowdown could be devastating to restaurants Michael Scelfo, the owner of the Cambridge restaurants Alden & Harlow, The Longfellow Bar and Waypoint, said.
Given the precarious financial situation most restaurants traditionally operate in, Scelfo said even a short-term disruption to business could be enough to force a restaurant to close its doors permanently.
“Most restaurants... are not financially solvent,” Scelfo said. “Most times, they are living week to week like a lot of us do when it comes to our funds. So, even a one, two, three week drip, drip, drip ,loss in a reduction of sales is just — it’s a death sentence for most restaurants.”
For many workers who live paycheck to paycheck, and rely on hourly tips in lieu of a standard wage, the disruption has arrived at many hoped would be the start of a busy spring season. To some, even a reduction in a week’s worth of anticipated earnings could mean the difference between paying their rent on time or not.
“Staff is scared. January [and] February are generally slow months, but February through June are our busiest times of year,” Nate Brown, the general manager of Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge said. “These people work on tips. Even the paid sick leave isn't close to what our regular business would have them earn.”
Many restaurants are caught in the difficult position of deciding whether to stay open and take advantage of the scarcity of other activities in the city or uphold the same aggressive public health measures taken by other major components of society.
Scelfo praised Baker's actions on Sunday and said the clarity could make it easier for restaurants and their staffs to navigate the uncharted terrain of running a business devoted to crowded settings during a global pandemic. He said mandated closures will make it easier for restaurant owners to negotiate with their landlords and insurance agencies to stay at their locations and earn restitution.
"I was very excited and pleased to see the leadership the Governor Baker showed today," he said. "I’m also really proud of our mayor in Cambridge and her willingness to be empathetic and listen to what I was suggesting. This is a great victory for all Massachusetts restaurants in the sense that we can all move forward together as a community."
Prior to Baker's announcement, Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen and State Rep. Mike Connolly, who represents portions of Cambridge and Somerville urged Baker to close all non-essential businesses.
Connolly said that the priority of the state government should be to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed, and that recommended social distancing guidelines are not doing enough to prevent people from gathering in groups.
“Our focus must be on trying to avoid the collapse of the healthcare system in Massachusetts, and the best way to do that is to limit all unnecessary in-person interactions,” he said. “To be sure, the duty will then be on the state and federal government to redress the many hardships that will be caused by this emergency action, but this is now a matter of life or death. Voluntary social distancing is not working.”
Connolly said Baker's orders were a sign of good progress, but urged the governor to go further.
“Thank you @MassGovernor for responding to our call to #ShutDownMASS by closing K-12 schools, dine-in restaurants, and bars — and by broadening unemployment benefits,” the legislator wrote on Twitter. “There’s more to do, but these are very good first steps.”
on Sunday, Mayor Marty Walsh also declared a public health emergency in Boston and issued a mandate requiring restaurants and bars to operate at 50 percent capacity and close at 11 under the penalty of closing for 30 days during the state of emergency.
“The health and safety of each and every Boston resident is our first priority. At this point, we are undoubtedly experiencing a public health emergency in the City of Boston, and it is clear that we need to activate every tool at our disposal,” Walsh said.
Even without a mandate, some restaurants are voluntarily closed, anticipating either forced closures or a worsening of the pandemic. Atwood’s Tavern in East Cambridge told staff in an email they would be closing indefinitely due to public health concerns.
Noting the uncertainty of the situation, the management assured staff they would continue to provide them with meals and a setting to ease their anxieties throughout the closure.
“To assist everyone with this, we'd like everyone to come in on Monday afternoon and take as much food as they can with them,” management wrote. “We intend to provide food for anyone who needs it throughout this process and will be in regular contact with all of you. We are here for you. Lean on us.”
Driving further unease in restaurateurs, Scelfo said, is a lack of guidance from the federal government. Scelfo cited the shortfall of widespread testing and aid from the Trump administration as factors in making it difficult for restaurateurs to plan during the crisis.
“In terms of the federal government, I don’t think we’re getting consistent messaging across most the board when it comes to this,” Scelfo said.
The pandemic has already altered the mood of the local hospitality industry. With some anticipating shutdowns and closures of major institutions to extend into the summer, many are reckoning with the fact that some restaurants will have to permanently close.
“Everyone wants to stay open for the chance to survive,” Brown said. “This could be the nail in the coffin for a lot of restaurants that had a lean winter in a city that has a surplus of places to eat and drink.”