It is no surprise that the last nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on every aspect of our lives. With cases recently hitting a record high in the United States and the coming winter months bringing new levels of uncertainty, there appears to be no end to the madness the world has been experiencing. Amidst all of this, while staying safe and following CDC and other government guidelines, individuals and institutions are trying to make the most of the current situation.
One of the hardest hit industries has undoubtedly been restaurants, which have historically relied on connecting patrons in close proximity over food and conversation—activities that many took for granted in a pre-mask-mandated world. The most recent guidelines for restaurants in Boston as of Nov. 6 require institutions to adhere to a “mandatory closing period” between 9:30 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., which prohibits restaurant-goers from ordering or being served food and beverages after 9:30 p.m. and requires them to leave the premises by 10:00 p.m. This guideline allows for takeout and delivery after 9:30 p.m. as long as alcohol is not sold or provided to customers. Many restaurants have reported significant decreases in their already lower-than-normal revenues since the institution of the curfew.
While the rest of Massachusetts loosened restrictions on indoor and outdoor dining to allow for groups of up to ten people at the end of September, an increase from the previous limit of six, the city of Boston has remained strict with its restaurant policies. As dining at a restaurant is one activity that cannot commence with a mask on and seemingly lies on the upper end of the risk scale, it is incredibly important for restaurants to follow appropriate and current guidelines. Some of these rules include maintaining at least six feet of distance between customers, allowing for proper air filtration, adding plexiglass or other partitions between tables, and promoting outdoor dining when the weather permits.
The Temporary Outdoor Dining Program, previously intended to end on Oct. 31, was extended through Dec. 1 to allow for restaurants to seat patrons outside on public sidewalks and parking lanes, although still at a lower capacity than normal. Some restaurants have added propane heaters to their outdoor dining areas, but these can be difficult to come by due to current demand and require restaurant owners to apply for a license with the Boston Fire Department. With longer-term cold weather on its way combined with the current curfew, businesses will hurt even more. There is no indication that these restrictions will be lifted before the spring.
Despite local businesses’ best efforts, it has been a struggle for many to stay afloat while adhering to current guidelines. Some Boston restaurants plan to hibernate for the winter, temporarily closing with hopes of opening back up in the spring of 2021 when there is (hopefully) both a vaccine and more chances to expand outdoor dining. The costs to remain open in the winter months while paying employees and rent is too much of a risk to take when things are so uncertain. The pandemic relief funds that many received months ago are no longer an option, and businesses are already struggling to sustain themselves at profitable levels. Similarly, a spike in cases due to indoor dining––especially if this can be traced back to a specific restaurant or area––would be harmful to an already struggling business; not to mention that a spike would create risks too dangerous to take for both the health of patrons and restaurants' reputations.
Restaurants still able to serve takeout food have not been hit as hard as bars. Unfortunately, many bars in the Boston area have been forced to permanently close, including Mary Ann’s Bar in Cleveland Circle, a long-cherished destination of Boston College students for generations. Mary Ann’s has been unable to serve students and locals since the pandemic started in March. Although it was purchased by the Greater Boston Bar Company in July 2018 in hopes of becoming a recreational and medical marijuana shop, it was still functioning as a bar with no immediate plans to transition before the initial lockdown began. Their marijuana license was officially granted last week, confirming Mary Ann’s' closure. Even with restrictions eased on indoor dining, bars have struggled the most—specifically those that did not previously have food-serving capabilities, as current guidelines prohibit alcohol sales at restaurants without food.
The pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives, and causes some to wonder when we will feel completely comfortable entering some of our favorite restaurants surrounded by strangers again. It is with optimism that restaurants continue to come up with creative solutions that adjust to the ever-changing landscape that COVID-19 has created, especially in the months ahead. With the promise of effective vaccines closer than ever, hopefully we will be able to enjoy meals and clink glasses at closely spaced tables again soon.