We’ve already lost at least four year-round restaurants to the pandemic — at least temporarily. The Ritz is taking the winter off because it was down to two staff members. Seaweed’s, a new, promising restaurant, is also closing for the winter after pleading with Oak Bluffs selectmen, unsuccessfully, to let them open just one day a week. Chowder Co. never opened after initial restaurant closures because the bar is such a big space inside, and Beach Road is also closed, at least for now.
According to Bloomberg, more than 110,000 restaurants have closed nationwide since the pandemic began in mid-March.
The year-round restaurant business on the Island has always been precarious. The population shrinks from more than 100,000 in summer to about 17,000 in the wintertime. But the restaurant owners we spoke with have made a conscious decision to stay open in good times and bad. They see it both as a service to year-round residents and a savvy business move to maintain long-term relationships with employees who need the paycheck to survive living on the Island in the off-season.
The pandemic has hit a lot of businesses hard. Restaurants have suffered, in part, because of the fear some people have of getting the virus from being around others in public. They just don’t want to take a chance eating out.
But restaurants are heavily regulated already, and have taken great strides to protect the public and their employees during the pandemic. They’ve reduced occupancy. They make hand sanitizer available. Masks are worn. They have their restaurants regularly sanitized. And, in some cases, they’ve installed improved ventilation systems.
Maybe customers are getting some of their angst about restaurants by following the lead of Gov. Charlie Baker. We’ve supported most of the governor’s decisions, but while he says these decisions are data-driven, we think he’s wrong about restaurants. According to data collected by the state Department of Public Health, in November restaurants were responsible for 3/10ths of 1 percent of the cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, or about 103 cases out of the 26,451 cases last month.
Though sitting in a restaurant is obviously not as safe as being outdoors with a mask on, the way Baker’s acted, you’d think restaurants were the biggest part of the problem with the spread of COVID-19. Bars are completely shut down (not a bad thing), but Baker has more recently imposed nonsensical restrictions on restaurants, like forcing them to serve their last customers by 9:30 pm — as if the virus comes out in abundance late at night. This might make sense in Boston and other big cities, where there are a large volume of year-round restaurants, but on the Island, it’s a lost opportunity — particularly on weekends — to get one more “turn of the tables,” as restaurant owner Mike Santoro put it.
As of last Sunday, restaurants have to limit a customer’s visit to 90 minutes, and require them to wear a mask at all times unless they’re eating food or sipping a drink. (Previously, you could take off your mask when safely sitting with your party — presumably people in your family.) The number of people at a table is now limited to six people, from 10. Hard to argue with that.
But all of these restrictions collectively just make a tough business tougher on the Island. Our restaurants need your help.
What they really need is a government boost, but that doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon from the state or the feds. Local boards were helpful early on, but it might be worth considering allowing these restaurants to open and close with more flexibility.
Restaurant owners shared some things you could do to assist them. They suggest you buy gift certificates for presents this year (Martha’s Vineyard Bank has a cool Lift certificate program), go out to eat or for takeout at least once a week, order online when available, show some patience to their worn-out employees, and, of course, wear a mask.
Also tip your waiters, waitresses, and yes, your takeout folks generously.
We can get through this — well-fed and together.