After a long winter, many are preparing to welcome customers back.
(Somerville Wire) – A number of restaurants in Somerville decided to close down for the winter months, realizing that capacity limits and the cold weather made it unprofitable to remain open during the harsh season. Now, with spring approaching, many are preparing to return. While owners are hopeful about seeing customers again and making a comeback, the period of “hibernation,” a term that restaurateurs object to as trivializing the struggles they have felt, has led to financial hardship.
Rosebud American Kitchen and Bar, located in Davis Square, made the difficult choice to temporarily shutter in December 2020. Joe Cassinelli, CEO of Alpine Restaurant Group, which manages Rosebud, said that the decision was “heartbreaking,” particularly when considering their employees, who have been trying hard to survive. A number of factors went into the move to shut down.
“[There were] the regulations that came down, beginning in November, where governor Charlie Baker put the curfew in. After that, the weather started deteriorating,” said Cassinelli. “Half the kids from Tufts went away for break, and they weren’t allowed to come back until after Christmas break. There was that. And then mayor Joe Curtatone never giving us the ability to use our bar or increase the capacity like the rest of the state did definitely hurt us.”
Cassinelli said that he does not know when Rosebud will reopen, stating that this will be determined when the City loosens regulations. They will be building an outdoor patio and observing six foot distancing, but he explained that the restaurant needs higher capacity numbers to be able to run.
“The mayor has my hands completely tied behind my back,” said Cassinelli. “There’s nothing we can do. It’s been nothing but frustrating for all the restaurateurs in Somerville. We’ve all spoken to each other, and we’ve all made the decisions we were each able to make, but the common denominator is there.” He added, “As time goes on, the banks and the landlords see everybody else opening up, and the financial pressure starts to mount. We need our capacity. Take out is not a thing. Restaurants don’t survive on takeout. Restaurants don’t survive on a patio. It’s just not a business thing.”
Five Horses Tavern took a temporary pause, closing just before Christmas, and now has a goal of reopening on April 5. According to Dylan Welsh, owner of Hawkeye Hospitality, it was challenging to keep up with government regulations, explaining that, “we could not control the rules being changed day to day, week to week. You can only adapt to that so much and for so long, until it becomes realistically unviable.” To reopen in the spring, the management behind Five Horses will be observing protective measures, but they also know that they will have to keep up with changing policies.
“We’re positioned and equipped to adapt, just like we adapted in the fall, just like we adapt every night we open,” said Welsh. “We spent a lot of the summer and fall creating a very safe environment for our guests and staff, whether it be barriers between tables, sanitizing stations. All that work is done. It is like switching back on the lights, in terms of picking back up from where we left off. I’m assuming that the regulations on social distancing, all those guidelines that were in place in the fall, are going to be in place in the spring.”
According to Stephen Kissler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, it is safe for restaurants to be reopening in the spring, but they must exercise caution. While the introduction of the coronavirus vaccine will help in preventing the spread of the pandemic, establishments should be prepared to halt business if there is a new uptick in cases. They should also look to improving ventilation and air quality by keeping doors and windows open.
“The thing that I’ve really tried to reinforce for the beginning of the spring is that it’s okay to make steps towards reopening, but the most important thing we can do is make sure that we have very clear guidelines on when we’re going to reverse course,” said Kissler. “That’s especially important right now, given the spread of the variants. We’re not really sure what they’re going to do yet. Cases in our community are as low as they’ve been since November. We’re sort of in the state we were prior to our winter surge, so it makes sense to start thinking about these things and maybe gradually begin opening some businesses and restaurants, as well.”
But according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), restaurant dining, along with lack of mask mandates, is linked to the spread of the virus, contradicting that advice. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that there have been increases in deaths where there is in-person dining. While the study does not prove a direct relationship, researchers noticed that in counties that allowed restaurants to open for on-premises dining, they saw a rise in infections six weeks later and COVID-19 related deaths two months later. For this reason, health officials are strongly recommending adherence to CDC guidelines.
For the owner of Daddy Jones Bar, Dimitra Murphy, a winter closure felt like a necessary break, and the staff is looking forward to opening again in early April. Their patio service ended in late September, and while they occasionally did catering and takeout for customers here and there, they have used the time to clean the space, rearrange the kitchen, and paint. When the restaurant reopens, things will be much more “casual, people will order on their own when they sit.” The time has not been easy though: since last year, sales have dropped by 60%, and the staff has had to learn about how to mitigate food waste and only sell things that people truly want. However, because the restaurant would have been losing money anyway, the decision to close down came naturally.
“It was like, take this time to have a break, mentally, and take the time to paint the walls and give ourselves a fresh look,” said Murphy. “To me, it felt weird to be like, a year has gone by, and we’re still the same. I don’t think anyone is the same. So to just dust off the shelves, it didn’t feel right. Let’s paint, let’s redecorate a little bit.” She added, “For us, because we lose money every winter anyway–I don’t want to just be fighting to have better takeout sales than other people.”
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.