Jeff Gates likens it to being lost in the woods during a blizzard, just trying to keep the fire lit to stay alive.
Gates, a partner in Aquitaine Group, is referring to the difficulty of keeping four of his restaurants open with just a few workers for takeout service during the coronavirus pandemic and its related shutdowns. He’s also chairman of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, and his comments apply to the broader hospitality industry, as well, as it endures the worst storm it has ever experienced.
Local tourism, restaurant, and hotel leaders are brainstorming ways to keep the fire going — to help the industry bounce back once the public health crisis subsides. A Massachusetts marketing push, aimed at drawing visitors within driving distance, is in the works. Regional tourism agencies plan to pool their limited resources, but they may need more money from the state government to be effective.
In fact, the hard-hit industry will turn to government at all levels — state, federal and local — for assistance as it tries to recover from this disaster. Tens of thousands of hospitality workers in Massachusetts have already filed for unemployment benefits, more than in any other sector in the state, in a few short weeks as most restaurants and hotels temporarily closed or reverted to bare-bones operations. Big conferences and concerts were canceled left and right, the calendar scrubbed clean. New summer bookings on Cape Cod plunged. Most of Plymouth’s 400th anniversary events intended for 2020 were shifted to 2021.
Outside help will be essential to a recovery. So what are industry leaders seeking?
Federal funds: Operators of zoos, museums and other cultural institutions want the next federal stimulus bill to reflect their concerns. A group of Boston nonprofits such as the New England Aquarium and Zoo New England sent a letter last week to the state’s congressional delegation. They seek billions more for museums and libraries. They want an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program through December, to provide more time to employ workers and be eligible for the small-business program’s loan forgiveness. And they asked for an exemption so nonprofits with more than 500 employees could benefit. The requests mirrored those in a letter their national trade groups sent earlier in the week to congressional leaders.
State money: Massachusetts typically spends only modest amounts on state tourism promotion. Of the $284 million in hotel taxes raised last year, about $10 million went to the state’s tourism agency and to regional councils. These councils are working together on a statewide plan, brainstorming as recently as last Friday on a conference call.
Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, knows it’s a bad time to ask — one estimate from the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation predicts a budget shortfall of more than $4 billion in the next fiscal year. But Northcross said the tourism industry needs the help like never before, and the state budget needs those lodging taxes and related revenues. One possible bright spot for the Cape: The driving market could be more important than ever if travelers shun airplanes.
Hotel taxes: Martha Sheridan, chief executive at the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said she hopes the industry’s crisis spurs the Legislature to allow regional councils to set up their own assessment districts, to raise more money for marketing. It’s a way, Sheridan said, for the hospitality industry to supplement the tourism trust fund dollars and “self-fund” urgently needed promotional efforts.
Rules and guidelines: Even if Governor Charlie Baker gives the all-clear that restaurants, hotels and attractions can reopen, there’s concern that people will stay away out of fear for their health. Employees, diners and visitors need to be assured they’ll be safe. That is likely to mean new occupancy restrictions in restaurants and other public venues, similar to what Baker put in place for supermarkets last week.
To help offset those limits, the statewide restaurant group wants more flexibility with outdoor seating: freedom to set up makeshift patios in parking lots or on sidewalks, or maybe even closing down a place like Hanover Street in Boston’s North End to car traffic. Bob Luz, president of the restaurant group, said he’s talking with his counterparts in other Northeastern states to come up with a uniform set of recommendations for health guidelines for employees and guests to follow.
Gates sees a wide range of issues that government officials should start tackling now, working with the state’s entertainment industry, even while the pandemic lacks a certain end date. They range from mask and glove protocols to whether bar stools should be off-limits in the near future. He thinks the time to establish a public-private task force is now. Gates pulls out another metaphor: It’s wise to start planning for peace while the battle is still raging, even if it makes for awkward timing.