Reopening leaves many businesses with unknowns

Hospitality industry has lots of questions, few answers on how to operate.

Many businesses on Main Street in Vineyard Haven remain closed during phase one of the state’s reopening plan. — Lexi Pline

The Island’s hospitality industry reacted with a mix of frustration and concern after Gov. Charlie Baker released the state’s four-phase reopening plan Monday. 

Restaurant and hotel owners felt they were given little guidance and vague guidelines on when and how they could operate. Under the governor’s phased approach, restaurants and hotels are looking at three weeks before they can open, but that’s dependent on data that shows a steady decline in COVID-19 cases.

“We can’t make a good assessment of our needs. Takeout and dining in are very different, and you require a different infrastructure,” restaurateur J.B. Blau said.

Blau, who owns Sharky’s Cantina, Copper Wok, the Chowder Co., and the Loft, stressed that he didn’t want to rush an unsafe opening, but asked for a little more clarity. “If it stays closed for a month, that’s fine. Just tell us so we can plan,” Blau said. “I’m not saying get us open, let it rip … it’s often people want to hear good or bad news rather than ambiguous news.”

Part of that planning would be focused on when and how much staff to hire. Blau said without a clear date, people he would normally hire will most likely look for work elsewhere.

“It’s also just difficult, because you can’t even tell your staff that’s furloughed when we might need them back,” Blau said. “When somebody comes along and says, ‘Hey, do you want to work on a construction site?’ It’s hard to not understand when they say yes.”

This year, Blau decided his restaurants would not be sponsoring J-1 visas, and instead would focus on hiring as many locals as possible.

Oak Bluffs selectman Michael Santoro, who owns the Lookout Tavern, Ocean View, and Fishbones in Oak Bluffs, as well as the Net Result in Vineyard Haven, said staffing has been difficult for some of his restaurants, and expressed frustration with state leaders.

While the Lookout Tavern and the Net Result are open for takeout, Santoro has kept Fishbones and Ocean View closed as he waits for seating guidelines. He said he doesn’t know what to tell staff at those restaurants, since there isn’t clear guidance from the state.

“I’m so, so disappointed in our state government, how they’ve reacted, how they’ve treated us, and the lack of communication is just irresponsible,” Santoro said. “Treat us like professionals.”

Santoro said his disappointment had nothing to do with revenue, but with the fact of not knowing. He said the state government was “beating around the bush,” and that he wanted to see more dialogue with the hospitality industry, and asked for the state to be more upfront with businesses.

He added that while he knew Memorial Day weekend wasn’t going to be the same as in past years, he felt the state missed an opportunity to allow some dining, and referenced New Hampshire, where some outdoor dining has been allowed.

Harbor View Hotel owner Bernard Chiu said he would have liked more details and specifics, but he understands and even supports Baker’s plan.

Similar to Blau, Chiu is not sponsoring any J-1 visas this year. He expects to hire less staff due to a slower season, and will focus on hiring local workers.

Chiu has kept his salaried staff on the payroll, and hourly workers are receiving a stipend despite his decision to close down his hotel before it was mandated by the state.

“I think it’s a very sensible plan. It gives the governor some flexibility to do what is right for the commonwealth. Although I would prefer to have a definite day, I know that is impossible,” Chiu said. “It’s not business as usual.”

At King’s Barbershop in Vineyard Haven, owner Lamar Moreis told The Times his shop is hard at work preparing to reopen tentatively on May 25. 

King’s is planning on implementing new sanitization and operational protocols, such as no-touch thermometers at the door and having a new outside waiting arrangement for clients without an appointment. Moreis himself is already booked up with clients, but said other barbers will be available to take appointments and walk-ins.

“We are hopeful and enthusiastic about our reopening plan, and returning to our shop in order to serve our community in a safe and organized way during this ongoing pandemic,” Moreis said.

Edgartown Board of Trade vice president Julia Celeste Tarka, who owns Rosewater Market & Take Away, said she was glad the state has started to share some of its thinking for reopening, but understood how business owners would like to have more guidance.

“I think all of us wish there was more guidance, more specifics, more information so that we could really plan better,” she said. “What’s been laid out so far has forced us to rethink our business models.”