Baker tabled a bill last week to extend three state of emergency measures, including one that calls for new permits for al fresco dining through November. He didn’t address the trickier issues of to-go drinks or delivery commission caps. But judging by testimony filed with the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, lawmakers will consider adding these other restaurant-friendly provisions to the mix for the next week or so. Senator Diana DiZoglio promises to turn to the amendment process, as she previously tried, if the two provisions are not included in an extension law blessed by the Senate leadership.
But it will not necessarily be easy if opponents also work to allow these two provisions to expire. When time is running out, let’s take a closer look at the current state of affairs.
Delivery service commissions: Restaurants became increasingly reliant on delivery services, especially in the early days of the pandemic when seated eating was not allowed. Even when it returned, many people did not feel safe eating around the house. Suddenly, food delivery became a main course instead of a side dish for restaurant sales and brought third-party delivery commissions into the spotlight. Last summer, for example, the legislature limited the fees to 15 percent, about half of what many restaurants would otherwise pay.
Jody Adams, cook and co-founder of Massachusetts Restaurants United advocacy group, hosted an event on the steps of the State House on Wednesday to raise awareness of the need to extend the pandemic policy for one year. For the restaurants she’s co-starring – Porto, Saloniki, and the soon-to-be-reopened Trade – extending the delivery restriction is the single most important step lawmakers can take to help rejuvenate. She is particularly concerned about the fact that Grubhub is increasing its commission to 38 percent. The profit margins for restaurant meals are already tight.
DoorDash and Grubhub are pushing back. A Grubhub lobbyist wrote that the caps limit the marketing services that restaurants commission with Grubhub; Grubhub also argued that the caps interfere with legitimate contracts between private parties and violate federal law by favoring state-owned companies (the restaurants) over out-of-state (the delivery services). A DoorDash lobbyist made several similar arguments, noting that the caps take away potential revenue from Dashers, as their couriers are called.
Cocktails to go: The cocktails-to-go rule adopted by the legislator to offer restaurants another source of income is also controversial. The Massachusetts Package Stores Association is campaigning for an end to this for good, arguing that more thought must be given before such a huge change to state alcohol laws is enacted – one that could steal revenue from its members. The Packies have an unusual ally in this battle: the Massachusetts Addiction Prevention Alliance. The nonprofit sounded Tuesday with its own concerns about take-out cocktails, saying this new “alcohol stream” provides an additional point of entry for minors and could intensify binge drinking among adults.
The restaurants also have support, thanks in part to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The national trade group known as DISCUS sent emails to Massachusetts voters this week calling on them to call state lawmakers and express their support for take-away alcohol. More than 35 states have introduced take-away cocktails as a pandemic relief measure. Now many are either making it permanent or extending the rules for a year or two. Including Maine, whose rule will now expire in September 2022. All other New England states are considering some kind of extension, according to DISCUS. (If something happened in Massachusetts, it would likely be an expansion, rather than a permanent change.) DISCUS lobbyist Jay Hibbard argues that restaurants still need help, not least because many diners still don’t like dining inside.
Alfresco Eating: Meanwhile, the state’s massive al fresco dining experiment was proving to be a great success in most places. This is the safest bet among these provisions to win an overtime, perhaps beyond November 29th on Baker’s account. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association, for example, is pushing for expedited outdoor approval by the end of 2022 to give lawmakers additional time to work out a more permanent solution.
However, not everyone is satisfied. There was grumbling, especially about how tables were eating up parking spaces. The Retailers Association of Massachusetts represents members on both sides – restaurants with newly discovered patios and vendors that rely on street parking. However, the association is pushing for outdoor seating to be expanded to give restaurants more time to recoup sales lost during the pandemic, as long as authority over these makeshift decks remains with local officials.
Youth workers: The retail group is also taking the opportunity to advocate a modest labor law shift to start the summer season for 14- and 15-year-olds on June 15 instead of July 1 and the second half of June 40 hours a week instead of the school year allowed to work 18 hours a week to address the severe labor shortage that restaurants and other industries face as they fully reopen. It’s only been two weeks. But for small business advocates, any help, no matter how small, is welcome at this point.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.