PITTSFIELD — Following an outcry from restaurant owners and amid surging coronavirus infections, the Board of Health voted unanimously Wednesday to allow city eateries to resume indoor dining under modified rules, effective Thursday.
The decision came at a remote meeting Wednesday, two days after several restaurant owners went to City Hall petitioning for permission to serve customers indoors once again.
The health panel rescinded its emergency Nov. 12 order that suspended indoor dining until further notice. The board approved a new order that puts new rules in place that are slightly more stringent than the state’s standards.
Under the new order, restaurants will be allowed to seat diners indoors starting Thursday, but can allow no more than six people at each table. Eateries must also collect the name and phone number of at least one person at each table in order to facilitate contact tracing, if that becomes necessary in the event of a COVID-19 case.
Public pressure to resume indoor dining had mounted in recent days, resulting in a Tuesday Zoom session with health leaders, restaurant owners and Mayor Linda Tyer. However, the Board of Health chairman, Dr. Alan Kulberg, said that even before that meeting “there was a general inclination” among members of Tyer’s COVID-19 Task Force “to support the reopening of restaurants as soon as possible.”
While supporting it, Kulberg said he approaches the move to hit play on indoor table service with trepidation “because of the significant rise of cases in the community.”
The city reported 41 new positive COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, easily exceeding the number of infections seen throughout the months of July and August combined, according to the city’s online COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard showed that, based on the city’s positivity rate and coronavirus case count, Pittsfield on Wednesday tipped into the state’s high-risk “red” designation.
In November alone, at least 422 people were sickened with COVID-19 in Pittsfield, city data show. More than one-third of those infections were reported among residents of Hillcrest Commons Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. By way of comparison, 260 infections were reported in the city in the eight months since the start of the pandemic in March until the end of October, when the city was consistently ranked in the state’s two lowest-risk designations for coronavirus transmission, said Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong.
“We were really keeping our Covid case numbers under control. We saw that the overall approach of people in our community was that they were taking it seriously,” she said. Then things changed. “We saw a dramatic increase in cases shortly after Halloween.”
The health panel suspended indoor dining about three weeks ago in response to that surge, which Armstrong said included “cluster events that were related to indoor dining” that were “difficult to manage with contact tracing alone.”
Contact tracing did, however, reveal to health leaders that employees of an undisclosed number of local restaurants had also attended Halloween parties where transmission occurred, she said. The revelations resulted in restaurants voluntarily closing because of transmission occurring within their establishments.
Restaurant owners have been highly critical of the Tyer administration’s response to the surge, which Melissa Mazzeo, who is married to the owner of Mazzeo’s Ristorante, on Wednesday called “a big disservice to the economy in Pittsfield.” Candace Lyons, manager of Proprietor’s Lodge, said the pause on dining unfairly stigmatized restaurants that were doing the right thing in protecting customers.
Armstrong defended the city’s response, saying the city had to respond aggressively to what she termed an "extreme increase in cases," including coronavirus clusters that were spreading through the community. She said the suspension was always meant to be temporary, and that it achieved “really good outcomes.”
During the public comment portion of the health board meeting, representatives of local restaurants and national franchisees renewed their opposition to the across-the-board suspension of indoor dining, noting its impact on workers and the health of their businesses.
Eleanor Clancy, a regional director for Applebee’s in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, said she was frustrated to see maskless patrons in the parking lot of the Walmart not far from the Pittsfield restaurant, while knowing “I’m laying off 38 kids a couple weeks before Christmas time.”
“I field phone calls every day (from) people in tears asking me how they’re going to pay their bills,” she said before the health board took its vote.
Craig Benoit, owner of the Hot Dog Ranch on West Housatonic Street, spearheaded the restaurant petition and has marshaled his contemporaries into a coalition that he hopes to formalize into a restaurant association for the city or county.
After the Board of Health meeting, Benoit said he had already begun to call back employees he either laid off or reduced hours for in recent weeks. He plans to open for sit-down dining on Thursday.
He said he was glad to again be “on a level playing field” with restaurants in surrounding communities without such a suspension. He welcomed a commitment Tyer made on the Zoom call earlier this week, when she said the city will begin meeting with the coalition every other week.
“We won,” said Benoit, who added that he was happy a dialogue is open with the city. “I’m glad we finally all got to work together, because it was frustrating at first. I’m just glad we’re open.”
Still, Kulberg stressed the importance that business owners stay tough when it comes to enforcing health and safety standards, reminding them of Gov. Charlie Baker’s revised order mandating diners wear masks at all times they are not actively eating or drinking — even if they’re still seated at a table.
“We trust that all the restaurant owners are taking all of this very seriously,” said Kulberg. “We wish you all the very best of luck in the days ahead with getting your restaurants back to a semblance of normal operation.”