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Baker administration embarks on $2M campaign to promote restaurant industry

Marketing push is aimed to coincide with the lifting of restaurant occupancy restrictions this weekend

Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, seen here in March, said the restaurant promotion campaign will play an important part in revitalizing downtown areas. (Credit: Stuart Cahill/Pool)Stuart Cahill/Pool

State officials are launching a $1.9 million ad campaign to encourage consumers to eat out at their local restaurants, timed to coincide with the outdoor dining season and the lifting of pandemic-related occupancy restrictions this weekend.

The campaign, dubbed “Let’s Go Out,” started on Thursday and will run through September across the state. It will feature digital billboards, radio spots, TV ads on NESN, and billboards at Fenway Park. Local ad agency ThinkArgus is handling the creative side, a continuation of its work on the state’s “My Local MA” campaign that began last year.

Mike Kennealy, the Baker administration’s economic development secretary, said restaurants will play key roles in revitalizing downtowns and village centers.

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“It’s going to be really important for us that we continue to invest in our Main Streets and our downtowns,” Kennealy said. “This is another way to do that.”

The money was initially set aside in 2019 from taxes collected at the state’s casinos. Leaders in the House of Representatives had pushed for the funding after a flurry of prominent restaurant closures. An ad hoc commission was established to figure out how best to use the money to support the industry; that commission was about to embark on an ad campaign when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. The commission regrouped to meet the new challenge, and eventually decided on an ad campaign tailored to help with the reopening of the hospitality industry.

The campaign is one of several ways that state officials are trying to assist the beleaguered industry. Governor Charlie Baker filed a bill this week that would extend the streamlined rules for setting up outdoor dining areas through the end of November. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association is pushing lawmakers to extend the “cocktails to go” option and caps on third-party meal delivery commissions as part of that legislation, which is aimed at addressing pandemic-era rules that are scheduled to expire either when Baker’s state of emergency ends on June 15 or 60 days later.

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Kennealy also noted the restaurant sector has already received about one-third of the $700 million in small-business assistance grants doled out by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. in the past six months. And many local restaurants have applied for aid through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion pot of federal stimulus money overseen by the US Small Business Administration.

Few industries were hit harder by the pandemic. The sector employed nearly 262,000 people in Massachusetts in February 2020. That dropped by more than half by April of last year, when restaurants were closed except for takeout and delivery. Employment rose and dipped again throughout stages of the pandemic, with many establishments adopting a hibernation mode during the past winter. In April, employment stood at 202,000 — at least 60,000 jobs short of pre-pandemic levels.

Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said about 3,400 of the state’s roughly 16,000 restaurants have not reopened — however, some of those spots are being filled by new restaurants. On the plus side, of the 500 or so restaurants that went into hibernation, Luz isn’t aware of any that haven’t reopened, or aren’t about to do so. Now, the industry shares the challenge that many sectors face: finding enough people to fill open positions.

“People have to realize that we’re just getting our feet on the ground,” Luz said. “We’re going to look busy here, but it’s busy after 14 months of extremely low sales.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.