Eating places aren’t failing. They’re being failed.


If you’re looking to see a chilling vision of the spirit of Boston’s future – one that could well come true – try grabbing take-out at your favorite eateries in January and February. Is everything closed? If no help comes, and soon, the gastronomy landscape could look like this in the longer term: decimated.

According to a survey by the National Restaurant Association of 6,000 operators, 87 percent of full-service restaurants saw an average drop in sales of 36 percent in the second half of November. 83 percent assume that the situation will worsen in the coming months. And 17 percent – more than 110,000 restaurants – have closed. On-site, 3,400 restaurants in Massachusetts went out of business during the pandemic, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said at a press conference on Monday announcing that the city would move to a modified phase 2, step 2 with a 90- Return minute time limit for dining going to be required restaurants and licensing for bar seating. And hibernation is probably just the beginning. “I suspect that number will exceed 1,000 and more by early January, and a sizable number will be in the greater Boston area due to the lack of road users and the overcrowding of places and seats,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association .

The numbers sound shocking, but what would you expect? This is an industry that has been operating under necessary restrictions since March when indoor food was closed; it returned with limited capacity in late June. During the pandemic, restaurants did what they could: pivot, pivot, pivot. “We built a brand new restaurant for ourselves in five days. It was as hard as opening a restaurant, ”Craigie-on-Main chef and owner Tony Maws told me at the time.

Bars with white tablecloths and sommeliers suddenly specialized in take away. The kitchens adapted the menus so that the dishes could be easily transported and learned to navigate the world of delivery services with their companion fees. Bartenders have created cocktail sets. Restaurants became markets, selling ready meals and hard-to-get foods. Teams came together to prepare meals for medical workers and others in need, including their colleagues. People started pop-ups or hosted the pop-ups that their friends started. When al fresco dining was given the go-ahead, the state became an al fresco food court, as civilians ate french fries and basked in the sun, and operators spent money building pleasant patios and investing in heaters that were never warm enough would be to wear them the New England winter. All of this in addition to the increased costs for cleaning, plexiglass barriers, gloves, masks – and inevitably COVID tests for all staff if someone tests positive and the whole thing is shut down for a few days.

It cannot be said that gastronomy is not resilient. You can’t say it didn’t try. “This is probably the toughest time I’ve been through in the 50 years I’ve been in this business,” says North End restaurateur Frank DePasquale, who runs Bricco, Mare, Trattoria il Panino, and others. “We’re used to changing over time, but it’s like a roller coaster ride. In a minute you spend that much money on plexiglass or outdoor heating or barriers or umbrellas. Then it won’t be there for the next minute. We spent a lot of money to keep this thing going. “

So where is the help? It is untenable for the government to demand that an industry be shut down and then reinvent itself over and over again while it is still in operation without providing any noteworthy help. In a sense, this applies to all small businesses involved, from personal trainers to cleaning. What sets the restaurant industry apart, however, is the sheer number of people it provides a livelihood for: 10 percent of the jobs in Massachusetts, Luz says, without considering those who provide related goods and services.

The federal paycheck protection program brought relief early on, although its restrictions on restaurants did not always work well: much of it had to be used on payroll, for example when other expenses were urgent. Rent due? Hopefully you have an understanding landlord. And the program tended to favor large companies that are better able to control the application process and with established relationships with banks over small, independent restaurants in the neighborhood.

Massachusetts House proposed a Distressed Restaurant Fund under a business development bill to be financed from the proceeds of legalized sports betting. It would help restaurants with things like rent, payroll, and PSA, as well as limit third-party delivery fees. This along with any other help from Massachusetts is urgently needed. But as MP Aaron Michlewitz, the House of Representatives’ budget chairman, spoke to him about the law in September: “We cannot print money. Washington can. Our resources are very limited in terms of what we can provide in real dollars. “

And this is largely Washington’s breach of duty under the supervision of a president who himself is in the hospitality industry. For months, industry groups like the Independent Restaurant Coalition and Mass Restaurants United have been calling on Congress to pass the RESTAURANTS Act, which would set up a $ 120 billion fund to support independent restaurants. Let’s see: keep an industry that employs 11 million people nationally, according to the IRC, plus 5 million more through supply chains, right? Secure jobs now or pay later? Every restaurateur I’ve spoken to has prioritized the continuous employment of staff. This is not about profit. It’s about keeping jobs safe until they become profitable again.

I like to eat in restaurants. Much. I’m more interested in the people who work in it, whose livelihoods are at stake. The people who put years of work into opening it up and losing it all. The farmers and fishermen and other producers whose markets have dried up. The people who face the very real possibility of starvation and housing loss. I’m interested in cities and their character and how much of it goes away when restaurants fail.

The government should take care of its people. In this country, however, we are running GoFundMe campaigns to pay for funerals for people who have died because they could not afford medical care. And now the citizens are trying to do the equivalent to save the restaurants we love. In the name of good, as you can afford it, please: get something to take away. If possible, pick it up yourself to avoid third-party shipping costs, which can be up to 30 percent. Buy restaurant gift cards for everyone this holiday season. (By the way, have your winter sweaters dry-cleaned, renew your museum membership and pay for the yoga live stream from your favorite teacher.) Every little bit helps. But it won’t save an industry that needs an industry-specific bailout, created with industry input from people who understand how business works.

Until that happens, state and local governments will continue to perform their dance trying to balance public health and economic interests. For restaurants, this can lead to seemingly arbitrary measures, such as last month requiring them to close their doors by 9:30 p.m. to reach the public home at 10 per a new stay-at-home advice. The earlier closure was a punishment for many: Hector Piña said it could mean a 30 percent loss at the Doña Habana South End restaurant; Ed Kane said his Big Night Entertainment group was doing 50 percent of its business after 9. It felt like safety theater to a virus that, as I last heard, could be transmitted at any time of the day.

New York City has just closed again to eat inside. If the Commonwealth as a whole doesn’t do the same, I suspect that select cities and towns will continue to grow as coronavirus numbers continue to rise – especially after the holidays when people gather when the risks mean they are not prompted.

An impossible situation for restaurants: death from 1,000 paper cuts or a quick blow. People start to fray under the pressure. “There’s a lot of fear and fear of the unknown,” says Kane. “We saw it with employees and managers. As soon as you lose hope or can’t pay your bills, it feels overwhelming. “

We can argue with the data, we can yell at each other through masks, we can discuss the effectiveness of restrictions. But the limitations aren’t the outrage. The lack of help is there.

Restaurants need measures like the Distressed Restaurant Fund and the RESTAURANTS Act to move forward. You need a second round of PPP. They need things like tenancy exemption, insurance support, tax-free payroll. You need a rescue. Where is it?

Devra First can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.