PITTSFIELD — A decision about how and when to resume indoor restaurant dining in Pittsfield could be made as soon as this week, city officials said Tuesday in a Zoom session with owners of local eateries.
The Board of Health will discuss the issue at its next remote meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Dr. Alan Kulberg, the panel’s chairman, said health leaders should have more clarity on the issue soon after.
“I think by Thursday morning we will have a good idea of where we’re going to go with this,” he said. Mayor Linda Tyer’s COVID-19 Task Force meets Thursday.
Tyer and Kulberg joined Health Director Gina Armstrong on the video conference session, held one day after the owners of several city eateries brought a petition to City Hall demanding a briefing from the mayor on plans for resuming indoor dining, which was suspended in a Nov. 12 emergency Board of Health order.
While there is no date yet, indoor dining will resume on terms that promote safety, said Tyer, who indicated that day may not be far off.
“We will reopen, we just need to get to some terms that we feel we can do it safely,” she said. “And I think, sooner than you may think, we will be able to issue some revised guidelines to reopening.”
Officials hit pause on indoor dining following a “very serious surge” in new cases in November, which Tyer said required the city to take action.
By suspending indoor dining across the board rather than on a case-by-case basis, the order punished restaurants that were “doing things right,” said Melissa Mazzeo, the former councilor who ran against Tyer and is being sued by the mayor’s husband.
“Shutting down all the restaurants, it was just such a knee-jerk reaction,” said Mazzeo, whose husband, Tony, owns Mazzeo’s Ristorante.
Armstrong last week connected one coronavirus cluster to a group that started at Mazzeo’s then went to City Councilor Yuki Cohen’s Methuselah Bar and Lounge on Oct. 24. Despite the outbreak, the owners of both establishments have denied straying from COVID-19 guidelines.
Restaurant owners say their businesses were unfairly targeted with the restriction, but Kulberg said the decision to halt indoor dining was data-driven.
“It’s not like the restaurant industry was being singled out; it just happens to be a locale where people get together in groups without masks,” he said.
Excluding the cases tied to longterm care facilities, Tyer said the upward trend of new coronavirus cases in the community that began around Nov. 4 tipped downward on Nov. 22. Infections trended downward over the next week or so, until Monday, when the two-week average of daily cases per 100,000 people count jumped up.
“We’ve been able to slow the spread around the community,” Tyer said. But, she acknowledged lingering anxiety over the possibility of a "Thanksgiving surge” due to holiday gatherings last week. With indoor dining on hold recently, Tyer said leaders are noticing new trends, such as an increased transmission within households.
“We’re going to be carefully looking at the data for this week and early next week,” she said.
The data Tyer cited does not include COVID-19 cases related to nursing homes or longterm care, including at the Hillcrest Commons Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Pittsfield. As of Monday, 123 current cases were reported among the Valentine Road center's residents (148 to date) and 52 current cases were listed among staff (54 to date).
She raised the idea of setting a limit of no more than six people at a restaurant table at first, and possibly later upping it to the current maximum allowed by the state, 10 people, depending on how the pandemic trends in coming weeks.
Restaurant owners were receptive Tuesday, amid what they have described as a dire need to increase sales.
“Let’s get the ball rolling, monitor it, see what happens,” said Mickey Soldato, who owns The Roasted Garlic and Zucchini’s in Pittsfield. “But we have to start generating revenue.”
As the Board of Health eyes a decision, Kulberg said it remains unclear whether the “slight rise” seen Monday was a one-off, or rather foreshadows a bigger post-Thanksgiving increase.
“When we do reopen indoor dining, we will be doing that with the recognition that we are entering a precarious time in terms of the spread of disease in the community,” he said.