The restaurant industry is now freed from all the state’s COVID-19 rules and restrictions. Roll those tables out of storage. Take down all that Plexiglas. Let guests stay for as long as they want.
But what about the benefits that state officials provided to help the sector through this tough time? Those could be about to end, too — unless the Legislature moves swiftly.
As Governor Charlie Baker’s state of emergency expires on June 15, so could “cocktails to go” as well as a cap on delivery commissions charged by the likes of DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber Eats. Then, 60 days later, the expedited permits for outdoor dining that allowed so many restaurants to spill out onto the streets could evaporate in the summer sun.
Baker filed a bill last week to extend three measures tied to the state of emergency, including one that would continue new permits for outdoor dining until the end of November. He did not address the thornier questions of to-go drinks or delivery commission caps. But judging from testimony filed with the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, lawmakers will consider adding these other restaurant-friendly provisions to the mix over the next week or so. Senator Diana DiZoglio is vowing to turn to the amendment process, like she has tried before, if the two provisions aren’t included in an extension bill blessed by the Senate leadership.
But it won’t necessarily be easy, not when opponents are also lobbying to let those two provisions expire. With time running out, let’s take a closer look at the current state of play.
Delivery service commissions: Restaurants became increasingly reliant on delivery services, particularly in the early days of the pandemic when sit-down dining was not allowed. Even when it returned, many people didn’t feel safe eating indoors. Suddenly, meal delivery became a main course instead of a side dish for restaurant revenue, shining a spotlight on third-party delivery commissions. So the Legislature last summer capped the fees at 15 percent, roughly half of what many restaurants would otherwise pay.
Jody Adams, chef and cofounder of the Massachusetts Restaurants United advocacy group, emceed an event on the State House steps on Wednesday to draw attention to the need to adopt one-year extensions to the pandemic provisions. For the restaurants she co-owns — Porto, Saloniki, and the soon-to-reopen Trade — the delivery cap extension is the most important step the Legislature can take to help with the recovery. Talk of Grubhub raising its commission to 38 percent has her particularly concerned. Profit margins for restaurant meals are already tight.
DoorDash and Grubhub are pushing back. A lobbyist for Grubhub wrote that the caps limit the marketing services that restaurants contract with Grubhub to provide; Grubhub also argued that the caps interfere with lawful contracts between private parties and violate federal law by favoring in-state businesses (the restaurants) over out-of-state ones (the delivery services). A DoorDash lobbyist weighed in with several similar arguments, while noting that the caps take away potential earnings for Dashers, as its couriers are known.
Cocktails to go: The cocktails-to-go rule, passed by lawmakers to provide restaurants another revenue source, is also contentious. The Massachusetts Package Stores Association is lobbying to end it for good, arguing that more consideration needs to be given before such a major change to state liquor laws is enacted — one that could take revenue away from its members. The packies have an unusual ally in this fight: the Massachusetts Addiction Prevention Alliance. The nonprofit sounded off on Tuesday with its own concerns over cocktails to go, saying this new “stream of alcohol” provides an additional access point for minors and could intensify binge-drinking among adults.
The restaurants have support, too, thanks in part to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The national trade group, known as DISCUS, sent e-mails to Massachusetts voters this week, urging them to ring up state legislators and express support for take-out alcohol. More than 35 states adopted cocktails-to-go as a pandemic relief measure. Now, many are either making it permanent or extending the rules for a year or two. Among those is Maine, whose rule now expires in September 2022. All other New England states, according to DISCUS, are considering an extension of some sort. (If something passes in Massachusetts, it would likely be an extension as opposed to a permanent change.) DISCUS lobbyist Jay Hibbard argues that restaurants still need the help, not the least because many diners still aren’t comfortable eating indoors.
Outdoor dining: Meanwhile, the state’s massive outdoor dining experiment turned out to be a big hit in most places. This is the most sure bet of these provisions to win an extension, perhaps even beyond the Nov. 29 date in Baker’s bill. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association, for example, is pushing for expedited outdoor permits to continue until the end of 2022, to give lawmakers additional time to craft a more permanent solution.
Not everyone is pleased, though. There has been grumbling, particularly about how tables have eaten up parking spots. The Retailers Association of Massachusetts represents members on both sides — restaurants with newfound patios, and merchants who depend on street parking. But the association is urging an extension of outdoor seating, to give eateries more time to recoup the sales they lost during the pandemic, as long as the authority over these makeshift decks remains with local officials.
Teen workers: The retailers group is also using the opportunity to lobby for a modest labor law shift, to begin the summer season for 14- and 15-year-olds on June 15 instead of July 1. Essentially, the change would allow those teens to work 40 hours a week in the second half of June, instead of 18 hours a week as allowed during the school year, to help address the severe worker shortage that restaurants and other industries face as they fully reopen. It’s just two weeks. But for small-business advocates, every little bit of help is welcome at this point.