As business restrictions have loosened up in Massachusetts this year, one city has remained steadfast in holding to stricter rules put in place during the coronavirus surge over the winter: Somerville.
Other cities and towns have entered the fourth and final phase of the state’s economic reopening. Somerville officials, meanwhile, said in mid-March that they were staying in the first step of phase three, in terms of business capacity limits, for the foreseeable future.
Stores, offices, salons, and gyms are now allowed to reopen at half capacity across the state — except in Somerville. There, the cap remains at 25 percent.
Perhaps no sector has been more affected than Somerville’s much-touted restaurant business, which relies on limited windows of time each day to draw customers. In other cities, indoor restaurant seating went from 25 percent to 40 percent capacity in early February, and then opened further on March 1. Restaurants across the state now operate with no precise limit based on a percentage of regular occupancy caps, and instead need to enforce six-foot distances between tables — a restriction that often means they can accommodate one-half to two-thirds of their pre-pandemic capacity. But not in Somerville, where restaurants still face the 25-percent limit.
“We’re constantly turning people away,” said Joe Cassinelli, whose Alpine Restaurant Group includes Rosebud, the Painted Burro, and Posto, in Davis Square. “People are frustrated . . . You can walk across the street to Cambridge, and sit at the bar and you can be at capacity, with social distancing, and you can’t do that in Somerville.”
Somerville officials counter that they are simply following guidance from health experts and federal officials who have regularly warned of the pandemic’s threat this spring. They are waiting for a more substantive drop in COVID-19 cases locally.
“Here in Somerville, we’re not fighting our business community. We’re not fighting the restaurant community. We’re fighting the pandemic,” Mayor Joe Curtatone said. “I can’t abdicate my responsibility to keep everyone in my city who lives here and works here healthy, safe, and alive . . . I have explained this to the business community. The overwhelming majority understand.”
Somerville officials also point to the great lengths they’ve gone to assist the restaurant industry, in particular, a source of pride for the city. Somerville has one of the most generous city-run COVID-19 relief programs for small businesses in the state, making grants of up to $25,000 available: Restaurants and bars collectively received nearly $2.4 million from the city during the past year, with more money on the way. It was the first city to allow restaurants to start selling groceries to offset their loss of revenue during the shutdowns a year ago. City officials say they’ve also gone out of their way to help businesses set up delivery services and outdoor dining options.
Curtatone said he wants to give restaurants enough lead time to prepare before loosening the restrictions. He expects that decision will be made once the COVID-19 case counts fall further and vaccines are more widely available, but doesn’t expect to change any capacity limits before the first week of May, at the earliest.
“There’s good news on the horizon,” Curtatone said. “We know the vaccines are working. We’re heading into warmer weather. We can see around the corner. We just don’t want to trip, getting there.”
But some restaurateurs are growing increasingly impatient. Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, fired off a memo in mid-March, calling for Curtatone to reverse his stance, accusing the mayor of making the decision “solely based on political vanity.”
A spokeswoman said this conservative approach to reopening is about safety, not politics. Curtatone, the longest-serving mayor in Somerville’s history, recently announced that he will not run for his current office again in November after nearly two decades in the job, although there has been much speculation he may seek a statewide office in 2022. Curtatone, a Democrat, is a critic of Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening efforts, saying the Republican governor has been moving too quickly in the face of a still-serious COVID-19 threat.
That’s not what restaurateurs such as Tamara Bourso think, however. The Dali owner is frustrated by Baker’s statewide limit to 90 minutes for any party dining at a restaurant. She seems even more frustrated by Somerville’s 25-percent restriction. She has a small outdoor patio, but she said she needs more indoor dining to make the numbers work. And she worries she might have to write an obituary for Dali, just as she did for her international small-dishes restaurant in Cambridge, Cuchi Cuchi, last year.
Andy Husbands, who co-owns four Smoke Shop BBQ restaurants, including one that opened in Harvard Square last year, has similar concerns. One of his restaurants is in Assembly Row, in Somerville. And that one, he said, is faring far worse than his other two locations that opened before the pandemic, in Kendall Square and the Seaport. One pressing issue: The utility bills don’t change much, regardless of how many diners he can serve on a given night.
“We’re turning people away because we can’t seat them,” Husbands said. “We don’t want to do anything that jeopardizes anybody, including our customers. [But] I don’t understand what metrics the mayor is using. Why is it OK in one city, and not the other?”