Opinion

Restaurants Need Our Support

Editorial

The story of restaurants during the pandemic has not been a good one.

While that may be the most obvious of observations, it’s still important to keep at the forefront of any discussion of this industry — because restaurateurs will spin the past year as positively as they can. “We discovered a strong market for takeout.” “Outdoor dining was an unexpected success we’ll stick with.” “Our loyal customers tell us they can’t wait to dine out again.”

But don’t confuse those sentiments — which testify to the grit and resourcefulness of the region’s many dining establishments — with good news. There is no good news. Among the restaurant owners we spoke with for this issue, total sales over the past year have been significantly curtailed — in some cases halved, or worse.

Yes, they’ve done what they could to hang onto their dedicated staffs, with much-appreciated help from Paycheck Protection Program loans and state and local grants. And the pivots they made — one told us it was like opening a new restaurant every week — are admirable, as they were willing to change menus on the fly, install takeout and delivery, set up outdoor dining, and take any number of other steps to survive.

Some have not. And even among those that have, no one had a good year, and some are hanging by a thread. That 25% indoor capacity restriction, however needed to keep people safe, is just not going to cut it through a New England winter. That 9:30 p.m. curfew, only recently lifted, might pose an inconvenience to customers, but for a restaurant owner, those extra hours could be the difference between paying their bills and … well, not.

The economic impact on the region is massive; according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Assoc., the Bay State’s restaurants generated $18.7 billion in sales in 2018, while employing almost 350,000 workers. Meanwhile, every dollar spent on table-service dining contributes $1.87 to the state economy. And in a place like Hampshire County, where restaurants are such a key part of the culture and economy of Northampton, Easthampton, Amherst, and other communities, the damage of 2020 — which is clearly extending into 2021 — is even more dire.

A Pioneer Institute report lists a few steps local and state governments can make to ease the strain a little, from allowing alcoholic-beverage takeout and delivery on a permanent basis to allowing restaurants to sell fresh produce, meats, and other whole foods during the pandemic to compete with grocery stores; from prioritizing local permitting for food trucks owned by restaurants to allowing outdoor seating in parking lots and on sidewalks, as happened last summer in downtown Northampton.

But none of these steps, or the pivots restaurants have already made, will solve the main issue — that, even at reduced capacity, diners aren’t filling tables right now, and might not until they feel it’s safe, and that gets into vaccine distribution, a whole other story.

In the meantime, why not do what you can? Order more takeout. Buy more gift cards. Sit down for a meal if you feel safe doing so; area restaurants have been transparent about their sanitization procedures. And, once the COVID fog lifts and restaurants can open more fully, support them as much as possible.

The loss of more restaurants in Western Mass. would be a blow to our economy and a culture that values good food. But mostly, it would be a blow to some good, smart people who are tired of pivoting — but continue to do so, just to stay alive.

 

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