There’s been just one thing stopping Paddy’s Lunch from reopening. Despite its name, the Cambridge bar didn’t serve prepared food. And since bars that are not attached to restaurants are still off limits under state COVID-19 restrictions, Paddy’s has been left high and dry for a year.
Now, after spending tens of thousands of dollars to retrofit the tiny kitchen area, owner Ruth Ryan Allen is almost ready to open again, once her staff completes food safety training that will qualify them to serve hot dogs and snacks to the 15 or so people who will be allowed inside the small space.
The continued restrictions on bars have hurt many establishments that primarily rely on sales of beer, wine, and liquor ― from old-school neighborhood joints to dance clubs to Veterans of Foreign Wars posts. Some proprietors, like Allen, wonder what makes their businesses so different from the many restaurants that serve alcohol and have been open for months.
“Does COVID only come in when there’s no food?” Allen said. “If the same rules are applying ― where you have to be 6 feet away, you can only be in there for 90 minutes, you can only have a certain amount of people ― what’s the difference between having food and not having food?”
While other businesses talk about a slow return to normalcy, there is no clear timeline for when drinking establishments can reopen. Governor Charlie Baker allowed restaurants to offer live music again this month (with no indoor singing). And the state on March 22 is scheduled to move into a new phase of reopening. That would allow sports stadiums to reopen to small crowds, and permit larger gatherings at weddings and other functions.
But not bars.
In a statement, Baker’s office said its decisions about what hospitality businesses can open are intended “to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread and are designed to discourage people [from] spending extended periods of time without masks on.”
In a way, Paddy’s Lunch is fortunate ― it maintained a restaurant license for years without using it. For a wide swath of other alcohol-dependent businesses, however, there’s been no clear way for them to operate in compliance with the rules. Enjoying a couple of drinks in a relaxed setting almost invariably means people being in close proximity to each other.
“You need to be able to have people together. You need to be able to dance,” said Geno Green of 1120 Entertainment, an events and promotions company. Green doesn’t see any safe way to create the kinds of experiences he needs to prosper. “It’s a virus that impacts you socially, and we are individuals who gather people together, socially.”
But even those who understand why they can’t do business as usual say the situation is growing desperate. After a year with the lights out, any pandemic-related assistance is not enough to cover ongoing losses, they say. Bartenders, bouncers, and others who used to make a living in a bar or club have been struggling to survive. Many have likely moved on to other fields.
“It’s been discouraging because we’ve never had great nightlife in this city, and it’s all but exterminated now. When we go back to full open, who knows how many places are going to be able to reopen?” said Ross Thereault, a long-time DJ at Boston night spots.
Some in the entertainment industry have argued that clubs should at least be able to open with socially distanced table service.
But the Baker administration has already faced criticism for not being more cautious on reopening. Public health experts say it’s still not wise for someone who has not been vaccinated to go to a restaurant, and the governor himself has continued to urge people to avoid close contact with anyone outside of their household.
Helen Jenkins, a Boston University epidemiologist, said Baker’s recent decision to relax restaurant restrictions is not so much an indication that eating out is safe as a reflection of the administration’s attitude that they can operate without causing a spike in coronavirus cases that would overwhelm hospitals.
“I suspect that the reason for insisting on food with alcohol is that people who are very drunk are more likely to engage in risky behavior,” such as taking off their masks or gathering in large groups, Jenkins said in an e-mail.
Some bar and club owners aren’t even sure whether there’s an appetite among the general public for what they offer.
“People’s lives are at risk. We could lose a lot of people, so it’s a two-sided situation,” said Frank Poindexter, general manager of Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club, the once invariably crowded South End live music institution. “The public has to be safe before you go out and interact in certain ways.”
Poindexter said the best way the government can help now is to offer more assistance to shuttered businesses.
Others say public officials should also take into account the profound loneliness that many people are feeling after a traumatic year.
Bill LeBeau, state adjutant of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said it’s particularly maddening that some posts can remain open just by virtue of the fact that they serve fish and chips on a Friday, while others must remain closed. He said about 50 of the state’s posts only have a liquor license, and so they are not cleared to host members stopping in for a drink or to catch up with fellow veterans.
He’s hoping those posts will be able to open up at least as event venues later this month, but that could depend on how each city or town interprets the state’s rules.
“Isolation is the enemy of veterans, and these lockdowns have caused it,” LeBeau said. “It’s not about having a beer. It’s about being with other veterans, no matter what you’re doing. That has been really bad for us.”