Massachusetts cities and towns at lower risk of coronavirus could soon see restrictions limiting business relax, a move Gov. Charlie Baker and business leaders say could help save struggling restaurants.
“Our data’s gotten to a point now where people are starting to get familiar with the idea of looking at things on a town-by-town basis, and that makes it much easier to start thinking about something like this,” Baker said, speaking at the Bistro 5 restaurant in Medford on Thursday.
It would mean an easing of restrictions in the 290 Massachusetts communities considered at low risk of community spread, and it’s a move business leaders say they support.
“As we approach winter, they understand the dire straits that we’re in,” said Bob Luz of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “It would be significant.”
Outdoor patios like the one Baker toured at Bistro 5 have been a “godsend” for an industry decimated by draconian mandates on gathering sizes that have limited operations, Luz said. With winter coming, he said, restaurants will again have to pivot to keep cash flowing in.
An estimated one in five Massachusetts restaurants has gone out of business as coronavirus restrictions have cut dining-room capacity and party sizes. Baker said the measures have been necessary to slow the spread of the highly infectious virus but acknowledged it has been a “tremendous struggle” for many businesses.
“It’s been especially tough on local downtowns, main streets and the businesses in those communities,” Baker said, announcing he was doubling the cash available to businesses through the MassDOT shared streets and spaces emergency grant program from $5 million to $10 million.
The money goes to improve sidewalks, lots, curbs, streets and on-street parking spaces, Baker said.
Bistro 5 owner Vittorio Ettore used money he was awarded to purchase jersey barriers and transform a portion of a busy intersection into an outdoor patio.
“It has a real dining-room feel,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said, remarking on a “beautiful” stained-glass style mural painted on the restaurant’s windows by Winchester artist Jessica Clark of Studio on the Common.
Ettore said the program “is literally saving the restaurant industry in Massachusetts,” noting his business jumped from 30 customers per week to 30 to 40 a day once his patio opened in late July. He plans to purchase outdoor heaters next to extend his patio as the weather cools.
Baker said he would sign an executive order Thursday to extend the time frame for municipal permitting for expanded outdoor dining. A second order will allow arcades to reopen next week, he said.
Overcoming consumers’ anxiety about indoor dining will be the next challenge confronting small businesses as winter approaches, said Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
“We need to start educating consumers that they can shop safely, dine safety and be educated safely, because we’ve got to move the economy forward,” Hurst said.
The Republican governor said he and his wife, Lauren, dined both outdoors and indoors in downtown Salem over the weekend and challenged others to “try it.”