Mass. restaurants seek extension of relief measures

Coronavirus Local Impact

BOSTON (SHNS) – To-go cocktail sales and caps on fees charged by third-party delivery services have helped restaurants keep the lights on while their operations have been limited during the COVID-19 crisis, restaurant owners said Monday as they made the case for extending those temporary measures beyond the current state of emergency.

To buoy restaurants that first were limited to takeout and delivery only and then faced capacity restrictions and distancing requirements that limited how many patrons they could serve, lawmakers authorized the sale of beer, wine and cocktails with to-go food orders and capped the fees restaurants pay delivery apps like Grubhub and DoorDash at 15 percent.

Both of those provisions are linked to the length of the state of emergency that Gov. Charlie Baker declared last March. Baker announced Monday that he would end the state of emergency on June 15, giving a new timeline of less than a month to advocates pushing for extension of the restaurant relief measures.

“Small businesses, restaurants, bars and others are operating on these very slim margins, and having their top line impacted in a way that renders them unprofitable right away,” said Jackson Cannon, the bar director for the now-closed Kenmore Square bars Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne. “Any of these incremental helps, especially cocktails to-go and the cap on fees, these need to be of a duration long enough to help us climb out of this and hopefully protect as many of the businesses as we can.”

Jeffrey Mitchell said his family has owned their Chatham restaurant, The Talkative Pig, for six years and had their best year in 2019, for the first time taking in $1 million, of which $60,000 was profit.

From mid-March 2020, when sit-down dining was first banned, through late July of that year, when The Talkative Pig was able to start selling takeaway cocktails, Mitchell said the restaurant did $200,000 in sales, about half as much the same period in 2019.

“In August of 2020, that summertime on Cape Cod, we had 10 percent liquor sales when we had no one in our dining room, and that saved us,” he said of the takeout drink sales. “That money was able to keep our doors open as we went into the winter and people left the Cape.”

Sen. Diana DiZoglio filed bills (SD 2556, S 196) that would extend the delivery-fee cap and the takeout cocktail authorization beyond the end of the state of emergency, and has offered amendments to the Senate budget, which is teed up for debate next week, that would keep the measures in place for two years.

“Our local restaurants are depending on us to take immediate action as they work to remain afloat in this unprecedented time,” the Methuen Democrat said during a Zoom rally, held just before Baker announced the upcoming end to the state of emergency.

Later in the day, DiZoglio wrote on Twitter, “With @MassGovernor’s announcement today that the state of emergency is ending soon, I’m respectfully asking Sen Prez @KarenSpilka & Spkr @RonMariano, the powers that be, to expedite BOTH my cocktails to go & third party delivery cap bills ASAP to protect our restaurants.”

DiZoglio has also filed a budget amendment that would create a “COVID-19 Nascent Business Relief Fund” to support newer businesses that have suffered during the pandemic but lacked sufficient operational and income history to qualify for other aid opportunities, and one that would require that business interruption insurance cover COVID-related losses for businesses with up to 50 employees.

DiZoglio and Falmouth Democrat Rep. Dylan Fernandes filed the interruption insurance language as standalone bills (S 660, H 1079).

“After working so hard and contributing so much to our communities, small businesses deserve our support during this really, really tough period,” Fernandes said. “And passing this bill, mandating that insurance agencies give small businesses the insurance payments they deserve, that they paid for, will serve as a lifeline to help recover from the hardship caused by the pandemic.”

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