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In the North End, occupancy limit leaves cafes, eateries starved for customers

An employee sanitized the windows at Limoncello. Capacity limits for restaurants are leaving them on the edge, North End restaurateurs say.
An employee sanitized the windows at Limoncello. Capacity limits for restaurants are leaving them on the edge, North End restaurateurs say.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Maurizio Badolato on Sunday sat at a round table in the dining room of Limoncello, his North End restaurant, surrounded by the dozens of plexiglass dividers he purchased months ago.

He looked out the window as a couple walked by on North Street. Several seconds passed before another group happened past.

The holiday lights are shining, the pasta is homemade, and the cannoli are sweeter than ever, but there is little rejoicing in Boston’s usually festive Italian neighborhood.

Even on a beautiful Sunday when warm sunlight made the cold temperatures more bearable, the sidewalks were nearly empty.

Adding to the complications for struggling restaurants, the state is now restricting restaurants to 25 percent capacity in their dining rooms as COVID-19 cases climb in the state.

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Men chatted outside of Cantina Italiana in the North End.
Men chatted outside of Cantina Italiana in the North End. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The new cap has forced Badolato to turn many of his customers away, even if they made reservations months ago to dine at Limoncello, the place he has owned for 20 years.

“How do you tell people they can’t come now?” he said.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is typically bustling, with visitors popping into cafes or splurging on a night out.

Lifting his hands from the white tablecloth, Badolato leaned back in his chair and looked out the window again, to the quiet street.

“This is supposed to be the busiest month of the year,” he said. “If it continues like this, I’ll have to close. It makes me want to cry.”

A statue inside La Famiglia Spagnuolo wore a mask and Christmas lights.
A statue inside La Famiglia Spagnuolo wore a mask and Christmas lights. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The new restrictions took effect Saturday and will remain in place for at least two weeks. But unlike other sectors that fall under the cap, such as retail and personal services, restaurants are facing percentage-based capacity limits for the first time. Previously, they were subject to social distancing measures and the number of people seated per table, according to the state.

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The Massachusetts Restaurant Association notified its members of the restrictions in an e-mail that included an urgent plea to customers.

“Restaurants are in the business of supporting the community and now we need the community to support our restaurants and their employees,” the trade group said.

Last Wednesday, Governor Charlie Baker rolled out a $668 million relief program for small businesses that have been gutted by the pandemic shutdowns. Businesses would receive up to $75,000, or three months of operating expenses, to help cover payrolls, debt, and other costs. But the program depends largely on a new federal stimulus package.

Diners enjoyed a meal inside Cafe Dello Sport in the North End.
Diners enjoyed a meal inside Cafe Dello Sport in the North End. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Before the pandemic, Limoncello could seat as many as 125 people. Now, Badolato has to turn people away once there are about 30 guests inside.

He has tried to keep most of his staff, seven full-time workers, but was forced to cut back their hours. One server, Susan Lopez, has been working there for 17 years. She said she had to cut back from six days a week to one.

Lopez worked Saturday night from about 4 to 9:30 p.m. She served only four parties, a drastically low number when you’re working for tips.

In all, the restaurant served about 50 guests Saturday night, Badolato said, a long fall from the 150 to 200 he could previously expect, even on a weekday.

“And we refused 70 or 80 on Saturday,” he said. “We know the 25 percent limit is strict.”

On Hanover Street, La Famiglia Spagnuolo’s owner, Claudia Spagnuolo, said the 25 percent cap doesn’t make any difference for her. Diners stopped coming early on in the pandemic, and the numbers haven’t rebounded.

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Claudia Spagnuolo, owner of La Famiglia Spagnuolo, talked about the hits her business has taken as a result of COVID-19 restrictions put into place by Governor Charlie Baker.
Claudia Spagnuolo, owner of La Famiglia Spagnuolo, talked about the hits her business has taken as a result of COVID-19 restrictions put into place by Governor Charlie Baker. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“If I see one or two people come in, it’s a miracle of God,” she said.

Down the street at Cantina Italiana, owner John De Simone usually takes Sundays off, but he was there this weekend because the pandemic has forced him to shrink his staff.

Asked how the governor’s restrictions will affect his business, he let out a quiet chuckle, one devoid of joy.

“We’ve been getting pretty good at turning people away,” he said. “That’s not normal in this business.”

De Simone stood by the bar as he spoke. Music played softly in the dining room, and the sounds of clinking silverware rang from the lone occupied table in one corner near the front window, where a family enjoyed lunch.

“People aren’t coming out,” he said. “And [the restrictions are] one more thing that hinders us from cutting our losses.”

De Simone said small businesses are “being strung along” by the state and federal governments, as the rules seem to change from one day or one week to the next.

“They don’t have the experience in hospitality to understand how things run,” he said. “We need someone working with them who knows the industry and can help, not big restaurants, but small businesses. Because a restaurant can’t run at 25 percent or 50 percent. It can barely run at 75 percent.”

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“It’s impossible,” he added. “We’re bleeding money.”




Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.