Coronavirus Delays, Restrictions Leave MA Restaurants At A Loss

NORTON, MA — Restaurant owners hoping to ramp up service to include in-person dining were frustrated Monday with Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement that restaurants would not be included in phase one of the state’s coronavirus reopening plans.

For some, however, any capacity restrictions that come along with reopening amid the coronavirus health crisis mean it is better to stay closed.

“We were probably going to stay away from opening at 25 percent anyway,” said Tony Marcoullier, general manager of Mac & Walt’s, a neighborhood grill on Route 123 in Norton that specializes in burgers, beer and bourbon. “I think a lot of people are going to go that road. As a restaurant and bar, you would need at least 50 percent, if not more than 70 percent, for it to be worth it to reopen. … You pretty much have to fill it. Maybe not fill it, but be pretty close to it.”

Marcoullier said Mac & Walt’s employs up to 50 people at full capacity, but is down to a staff of nine or 10 working on takeout orders. He said the restaurant recently brought back two more employees, and added additional phone lines, because the takeout operation has gone so well.

While the health emergency devastated large parts of the economy across the board, restaurants, bars and other venues where people — often those not from the same household — gather inside and mingle were the hardest hit, and are the most problematic to restart.

New Hampshire and Rhode Island began allowing restaurants to serve customers with outdoor seating on Monday, but restaurant owners in Massachusetts had little guidance when they could hope to open ahead of the expiration of the state’s stay-at-home order on Monday.

Restaurants were then placed into phase two of a the state’s reopening, according to state guidelines released on Monday, which is at least three weeks away.

“Obviously, every restaurateur is disappointed with the lack of a defined re-opening date in today’s announcement,” the Massachusetts Restaurant Association said in a statement released Monday afternoon. “Massachusetts restaurants need their suppliers to have time to restock perishable inventory before it can be delivered to them, they need to notify employees about returning to work and conduct other due diligence to ensure restaurants can open effectively.”

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said during Monday’s news conference that the committee to help set specific guidelines for restaurant reopening met for the first time on Friday. Bars, casinos and other smaller entertainment venues are not slated to open until phase three — which is at least six weeks away.

“This group will help us shape the guidance that will allow these industries to reopen,” Polito said. “And, when the data allows for it, they will do safely and with (keeping) in mind the need to continue to fight the virus.”

Bars and restaurants were shut down on March 15. Originally, Gov. Baker’s order was slated to last three weeks, but it soon became apparent to most business owners that closures and restrictions would last much longer than that.

The longer they last, however, the more owners worry about the viability of reopening — especially under restrictions that could prove prohibitive for small-margin businesses like restaurants and bars that rely on volume over markup.

Forty percent of Massachusetts business owners responding to a Patch survey said they fear their businesses will not survive the economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, only 38 percent of the 110 survey respondents — representing a range of business owners from independent booksellers to restaurateurs to wedding photographers — expect business to pick up quickly once the state’s economy begins to reopen. Fully 60 percent think it will take “some time” for their businesses to reach previous levels.

“As always, restaurants remain uniquely qualified to safely serve customers because as an industry this is what they must do every day,” the Restaurant Association said. “Food and beverage establishments are the leader in safe sanitation practices, as they already operate in conjunction with FDA, state and local officials on a daily basis to ensure and comply with mandated high standards. We look forward to a timely completion of this process and welcoming our guests back, so that our industry can get back to doing what we do best.”

Marcoullier said getting the takeout operation up to speed was a process for Mac & Walt’s — a neighborhood haunt on Route 123 with a 55-person seating capacity that he said had previously done little to-go service.

Despite the 80 percent reduction in staff, he considers them one of the lucky ones.

“It’s absolutely sustainable for us at this point,” he said. “We got on it right away and we’ve made adjustments along the way. At first, we were letting people in to pick up their orders, But then we’ve got to keep people outside. Ninety-eight percent of it is paid for over the phone, so then you get your food and you’re on your way.”

More Patch Coronavirus Coverage: MA Reopening: Roadmap Detailed, Businesses Given Dates

MA Reopening Plan: When Each Industry Is Slated To Return

MA Patch Survey: Business Owners Worried, Confused On Reopening

This article originally appeared on the Norton Patch