Restaurant owners in Boston’s North End, a neighborhood defined by its iconic Italian eateries, are voicing frustration with Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to put off in-person dining for at least three weeks, saying that he is making it difficult for them to make a living.
Frank DePasquale, who owns several North End restaurants including Bricco on Hanover Street, said Tuesday that offering his customers takeout has been woefully inadequate, since it accounts for less than 5 percent of his business.
“You just can’t survive it with 5 percent,” he said. “We’re just standing here waiting."
At the same time, DePasquale said, "it’s a fine balance between the virus and the businesses, where we of course want to keep our staff and our customers safe. That’s the number one priority.”
Frank Mendoza, co-owner of Monica’s on Richmond Street, said he and other local restaurant owners are talking with attorneys about their options.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Mendoza said. “I worked 25 years to get where I am right now, 25 hard years. . . . I would rather die than lose my business after 25 years, man.”
Baker’s plan, unveiled Monday, allows for restaurants to reopen in phase two of a four-phase plan that’s subject to delays if the public health data moves in a troubling direction. Currently, phase two isn’t scheduled to begin for another three weeks.
The state says on its official website that once phase two starts, restaurants can “begin opening dining areas,” and officials are “actively considering whether additional guidance will be provided to restaurants before Phase 2.”
In neighboring states, that’s translated into restrictions such as limiting dining capacity. New Hampshire on Monday allowed restaurants to open for outdoor dining at 50 percent capacity, with 6 feet between tables. The situation’s similar in Rhode Island, where outdoor dining is now permitted with multiple restrictions.
Baker has said repeatedly that he’s aware of the devastating economic toll resulting from the restrictions implemented in March to combat the virus, which as of Tuesday had infected 87,925 residents and killed 5,938. But he’s defended the measures as necessary to protect public health.
His words haven’t stopped other industries from suing for the right to reopen, as Mendoza suggested he and some other restaurateurs are considering.
A group of marijuana companies and a consumer sued Baker in early April over the shutdown of recreational pot sales, but a state judge ruled Baker had “a rational basis” for closing recreational marijuana stores, even while keeping medical dispensaries and liquor stores open. Pot shops are now among the retailers allowed to reopen next Monday for recreational sales.
Another group that took Baker to court was the firearms industry, which prevailed in a federal lawsuit when a judge ordered that gun shops be allowed to reopen, ruling the decision to shutter them infringed on people’s Second Amendment rights.
Michael J. Traft, a Boston-based appellate lawyer, said Tuesday that if restaurant owners filed suit against the state, “I would think it’s more likely that the governor’s position would prevail.” State law, Traft said, gives Baker “broad authority” to take emergency measures to protect the public.
He cited powers vested in the state Civil Defense Act, which dates back to 1950. One of the powers enumerated in the act, Traft said, is the ability to govern various terms of licenses and permits in an emergency. He said he’d expect the state to win in court on the restaurant question, “given the broad nature of the authority” granted under the act and “the circumstances involved” in the pandemic.
On Tuesday, some businesses, like the Prime Fitness and Nutrition gym in Oxford, defied the ban and chose to reopen their doors.
But in the North End, not all restaurant owners are echoing Mendoza’s combative stance.
“I want to open, but I don’t want people to get sick,” said Massimo Tiberi, who owns Arya Trattoria on Hanover Street. “I don’t want [infections] to spike up again, and then we get shut down again. There’s got to be some kind of happy medium for us. Of course I want my restaurant full, but at the cost of what, you know?”
Tiberi said it would be helpful to have more information regarding an exact date for resuming dining and capacity restrictions. If there was more clarity, he said, “I don’t think people would have been so mad." At this point, he said, his most lucrative month is a wash.
“May is my best month of the year, with graduations, Mother’s Day,” Tiberi said. “So I missed my best month already.”
Christopher Muller, a professor at the Boston University school of hospitality administration, understands that restaurant owners are feeling the sting. But he emphasized that there’s also a social contract to uphold, one that says a business must do its part to protect the safety of its employees, customers, and the public at large. “The biggest challenge is the rebuilding of trust,” he said.
So Muller said his stomach turned as restaurants around the country opened for Mother’s Day. “They were basically saying we think brunch is more important than having mom here next year," he said.
Restaurants throughout the state say they want more details on protocols for reopening.
The Massachusetts Restaurant Association said Monday in a statement that members “need clarity” from the state, both “in what will be required and when they can start preparing to re-open operations.”
The association said, “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.”
In addition, the statement said, restaurants are “uniquely qualified” to safely serve customers since they’re already required to meet rigorous safety and sanitation standards.
Another local industry coalition, the MA Restaurant & Jobs Group, had published an open letter to Baker signed by over 200 restaurant owners pushing to open on May 18.
Voicing their frustration with the current plan, that group issued a second letter on Tuesday that proposed alternative measures that would allow for outdoor dining to resume this Friday, and operations to begin at reduced capacity as of June 1. The group is also pushing to be given three seats on the governor’s reopening council.
“In order to stay competitive with New Hampshire and Rhode Island going into Memorial Day, we want to be able to open outside dining,” said Erik Hynes, one of the group’s organizers, and the owner of the Hynes Restaurant Group, which includes several restaurants on the South Shore. He said waiting an additional three weeks for phase two — if all goes smoothly — may force more restaurants to shut down operations entirely.