It Has Been, and Continues to Be, a Difficult Year for Boston Restaurants

The COVID-19 pandemic has been raging for more than a year now. Domestically, it has infected more than 29 million people, claiming more than 532,000 lives. Of those, more than 600,000 Massachusetts residents have been infected, and more than 16,000 have died. COVID-19 has drastically — and irreversibly — transformed life as many of us knew it before, and it is difficult to understand or assess the breadth of what we’ve lost because there’s so much we’re still losing. The pandemic has caused extreme pain for untold millions in the form of grief, depression, economic anxiety, and social isolation.

The world hasn’t experienced this kind of global health crisis in more than a century. And yet, in the face of such an unprecedented and serious disease, it’s always felt as if the U.S. — or, at least, its politicians and the business leaders to whom they are mostly in thrall — hasn’t quite taken it seriously. Economic relief for individuals and businesses has been slow to arrive, and has been mostly inadequate when it finally does. Workers in restaurants, grocery stores, delivery services, and meatpacking plants who were told that they were essential when the pandemic first broke out have not been prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine in many states, including here in Massachusetts.

Put bluntly, it’s been a terrible fucking year. Today, March 15, marks the one-year anniversary of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to close restaurants and bars for indoor dining in an effort to slow the spread of the virus in the Commonwealth. The shutdown was supposed to last three weeks, from March 17 to April 6; as it turned out, restaurants didn’t resume indoor dining until June 22.

A lot happened in those three months. Some of it was, somehow, good:

But most of it was decidedly bad:

These points only scratch the surface. Those three months represented a torturous period for the restaurant industry, one that hardly improved in the months that followed. As Massachusetts restaurant operators begged for assistance, the state’s legislature continued to ignore a relief act that would have established a $20 million fund — peanuts in state budgetary terms — to help restaurants struggling through the pandemic.

The federally administered Paycheck Protection Program appeared to provide restaurant operators with much needed aid, but its application was (and continues to be) confusing and inequitable; and the funds were meant to keep workers on the payroll, a condition that was difficult to guarantee given the very real fear around returning to work that existed (and still persists) among many restaurant workers. What looked good on its face — restaurants get money to pay workers who need it to return to work — was actually a lot more complicated. If they spent the money incorrectly, restaurant operators might be on the hook for loans they couldn’t ultimately afford, while restaurant workers were faced with the impossible decision of choosing between their health and a paycheck.

Instead of reckoning with the fact that viruses don’t care about monthly jobs reports or the economy more broadly — or the Gregorian calendar — federal and state legislatures continued responding with a patchwork of half-measures and Band-Aids to keep states functioning at some degree of normalcy, despite the obvious fact that absolutely nothing was normal. Restaurants and their workers should have been bailed out, told to close up shop and go home until the pandemic relented.

Instead, restaurants in Massachusetts reopened for indoor dining in June 2020, and have remained open at varying capacity limits ever since. In fact, restaurants remained open even as COVID-19 cases surged toward the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, stretching the state’s hospital system to its limit for the second time in under a year.

The Massachusetts legislature eventually got around to establishing a small business relief fund, and Congress is finally offering restaurant operators the targeted relief they’ve been requesting for a year — but it was too little, too late for countless individuals. How many independent restaurant operators lost their life’s savings before relief finally came? How many restaurant workers in Massachusetts got sick because they were forced to decide between their health and making rent? How many struggled to access unemployment benefits? How many couldn’t access unemployment benefits? And how many have faced eviction or hunger in the past year? The overwhelming narrative has been one of legislative stagnation, economic pain for restaurant operators, and existential dread for restaurant workers.

Now that the vaccine rollout is underway, there’s a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel for some residents of Massachusetts. But even as the pandemic recedes, inequities persist. The state’s dining rooms are fully open without percentage-based capacity caps, but its restaurant workers have not been made eligible for the vaccine. Communities of color are being vaccinated at disproportionately lower rates, despite Baker’s insistence that equity is his main priority. These disparities have consequences for the restaurant industry: According to a recent study from the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Hispanic and Latinx food preparation and service workers in Massachusetts died of COVID-19 at a rate eight times higher than white workers between March and July 2020. And COVID-19 cases in the state’s capital are concentrated in communities of color with the highest proportions of essential workers, including cooks and servers.

As the pandemic continues to wane until — fingers crossed — disappearing entirely, the restaurant operators that were lucky enough to weather the storm will bounce back. Some will even thrive (lord knows there will be a lot of empty former restaurant spaces for rent in the coming years). But restaurant workers in Massachusetts will continue to feel the pain caused by the pandemic, because they’ll continue to live in a country where their industry’s top lobbying arm advocates against their best personal and financial interests, and in a state that’s only “affordable” for people making six figures.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but not everyone is allowed to bask in it.

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