Restaurants struggling to survive amid COVID

But owner says some problems government-inflicted

IT’S A DIFFICULT situation — keeping a business open while balancing public health regulations to keep surging coronavirus cases at bay. 

Doug Bacon, owner of eight Boston restaurants through the Red Paint Hospitality Group, where he is president, and Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce, joined The Codcast to discuss the perfect storm that has left thousands of restaurants across the state floundering or shuttering. 

Four of Bacon’s restaurants have reopened successfully, while another two had to be shut down after reopening temporarily but not getting enough foot traffic. 

Bacon’s restaurants, which include the White Horse Tavern, Hopewell Bar and Kitchen, the Westland, and the Corner Tavern, had 196 pre-COVID employees, some who had worked for him for over a decade. After layoffs, he is down to about 45.

The conversation covered measures the businesses are taking to keep employees and customers safe, the push for financial support from the federal and state governments, and a critique of a few of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening restrictions. 

Reibman’s organization meets weekly with restaurant owners — who make up a large chunk of the chamber’s members  — to hear their concerns and offer support. 

“It’s just heartbreaking. We have these men and women who have invested their lives in their careers in building these businesses and the restaurant business has never been easy,” he said. “Margins have never been good and suddenly they’ve been asked to, you know, pivot so many times in the past nine months.” 

From closure to take-out and curbside pick-up and outdoor dining, and then indoor seating with strong restrictions, the carousel hasn’t stopped turning for restaurant owners. Cold weather and customers wanting to stay home instead of eating on outdoor patios has driven some of the decline in customers. But Reibman and Bacon said the state’s hodge-podge of rules is confusing and Reibman said some of the rules pushed by Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito aren’t justifiable. 

For Bacon, one of those guidelines is stopping in-person dining at 9:30 p.m., which started in November. “We were hobbling along and sort of getting by and breaking even previously. But now with the 9:30 p.m. closing, it’s been even more difficult,” he said. 

Bacon hopes Baker will loosen up that restriction and remind people that the spike in COVID-19 cases isn’t coming from indoor dining. He and Reibman both believe that restaurants following all regulations are safer environments for people to eat at than indoor gatherings without safety measures in place.

“The data shows that restaurants are overwhelmingly doing what they’re supposed to do,” said Reibman. Out of 11,000 inspections from the beginning of the pandemic through August, over 97 percent were in compliance. 

If Bacon got a sit-down with Baker, he said he would ask him to scrap the early closing time and crack down on enforcement.
”If you want to make sure restaurants are safe, increase the enforcement to make sure everyone is following the rules and talk to the public about the statistics that prove that indoor dining is not causing the problem with the increases in COVID cases,” he said. 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Both were concerned that the state and federal governments aren’t doing enough to provide financial help to restaurants. Bacon was able to get Paycheck Protection Program money during a relief package issued over six months ago, but the funds are long gone to employee paychecks and rent. 

Congress gave tentative approval to a stimulus package over the weekend, which includes a $300 billion boost to the Paycheck Protection Program.