Restaurants hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic may soon get some additional help from Beacon Hill.
The Restaurant Relief Act moved forward in the Massachusetts House of Representatives on Tuesday, with a vote scheduled for Wednesday. The bill outlines several major initiatives that will expedite the reopening process for restaurants as they start to serve customers in person again in phase two of Governor Charlie Baker’s plan, which begins on June 8. Measures in the bill include streamlining the licensing process for restaurants seeking permits for outdoor dining, adding to-go cocktails to takeout orders, and capping the fees collected by third-party delivery companies at 15 percent.
“All of us in the Legislature want to do what we can and work proactively with our local municipal leaders to make sure our restaurants sustain and survive,” said Representative Paul McMurtry, who as the House appointee to the Restaurant Recovery Commission helped draft the bill. He said he hopes to have it on Baker’s desk by the end of the week.
Among the most pressing issues the bill tackles is the ability for restaurants to expedite the process of applying for outdoor dining permits — avoiding the typical seven-to-ten week process that is usually approved by the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. Should the bill pass, local municipalities can oversee the distribution of permits, which could get restaurants up and running for outdoor service in about a week.
“If ABCC was involved it would have delayed the process — they would have to send someone out to every license holder in the Commonwealth,” McMurtry said. “It’s an example of state agencies working to proactively solve a problem for the industry.”
Bob Luz, the head of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said the permitting measure is critical to help restaurants resume business quickly as they reopen.
“We started this with the anticipation and hopes that [customers would] be inside with social distancing when we reopened,” Luz said. “Obviously it became mission-critical when the opening announcement was that everyone will be outside for at least a couple of weeks.”
According to Baker, the state will continue to monitor key statistics — including COVID-19 hospitalizations, new infections, and fatalities — between June 1 and June 6, before announcing on June 6 if phase two can officially begin on June 8 as planned. Restaurants will begin with outdoor dining exclusively to start, and Baker said indoor dining could resume as soon as two weeks later if all signs track well.
The bill also removes the interest and penalties that restaurants may incur if they fail to pay their state meals tax on time through the end of the year; the governor has already relaxed the policy on late fees through an executive order. And it provides aid to restaurants offering takeut, by capping fees charged by third-party delivery services like GrubHub and Uber Eats at 15 percent. Those fees can be up to 30 percent from some services.
Luz said restaurateurs now realize that to-go orders will continue to be a major part of their revenue for the foreseeable future. “It became a huge piece of the sales and it will remain a pretty big piece until we get a vaccine,” he said. “The pandemic doesn’t end when we open up next week.”
Another key piece of the legislation: Alcohol sales will also be expanded, with mixed cocktails added to the list of beverages available through takeout. To-go mixed drinks of up to 64 ounces can now be sold alongside beer and wine at restaurants, but they must be taken off premises in a sealed container.
"It’s not New Orleans” in terms of open container rules, said McMurtry, but “it’s a gesture toward normalcy.”