PITTSFIELD — Almost three weeks into the suspension of indoor dining in Pittsfield, several local restaurateurs are fed up.
And on Monday, representatives of six popular eateries brought their message directly to City Hall.
The Board of Health issued an emergency order Nov. 12 suspending indoor dining, after Mayor Linda Tyer and city health officials determined that table service was contributing to surging coronavirus infections in the city.
Tyer on Monday defended the move as a successful public health intervention whose need was borne out in the data. But, the restaurant owners who gathered Monday outside City Hall to demand a 3 p.m. meeting with her said that their industry has been unfairly targeted with a restriction that has led Pittsfield residents to patronize restaurants in neighboring communities that haven’t hit pause on indoor dining.
Mickey Soldato, owner of Zucchini’s and The Roasted Garlic, said customers that he knows who live in Pittsfield have crossed the western border and dined at his third eatery, Mario’s, in New Lebanon, N.Y.
“It’s been very frustrating to nail them down and get anything definitive” about the city’s plans or timeline for resuming indoor dining, Soldato said. Walmart, barbershops and nail salons are open, so “it makes no sense to us exactly why we’re being singled out,” he said.
Soldato and Craig Benoit, owner of the Hot Dog Ranch, were joined by Mike Wendling, owner of O’Laughlin’s Pub; Paul Capitanio, of East Side Cafe and a former city councilor; Highland Restaurant owner Pasquale Arace; and Mazzeo’s Ristorante owner Tony Mazzeo outside City Hall at 70 Allen St., which is closed to the public.
Soldato brought a petition he spearheaded, with help from Mazzeo and Wendling, demanding that Tyer provide a briefing about plans to lift the Nov. 12 emergency order that shuttered dining rooms. According to a copy of the petition Benoit provided, representatives from 29 restaurants, including Hotel on North, Zucco’s, Patrick’s Pub, Kelly’s Diner and Jae’s at the Hilton Garden Inn, had signed on.
Tyer earlier had emailed Benoit to say she was not available at 3 p.m. Monday and suggested that they find another date. But, Benoit said he was determined to get some face time with her, and explain how the indoor dining suspension has affected his and other businesses.
The group was met at the door to City Hall by Tyer’s director of administrative services, Roberta McCulloch-Dews, and Executive Assistant Catherine Van Bramer, who offered a Tuesday Zoom call with Tyer and members of the Board of Health. They accepted, and handed over their petition.
But, Benoit walked away unsatisfied.
“You shut down our entire industry and you can’t give us 15 minutes?” Benoit asked.
While the city is seeing more positive COVID-19 cases daily now than in the spring, Tyer told The Eagle that the restriction on indoor dining has helped.
“We have seen a decline in cases since indoor dining was suspended,” she said. The city, she added, was “responding to a crisis, and our response worked.”
The city also is responding to an ongoing outbreak at the Hillcrest Commons Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Valentine Road.
Tyer said every decision regarding the pandemic made at a local level is “based on science and data.” While she declined to commit to any timeline, she said she does believe that indoor dining eventually can resume safely in Pittsfield.
She said the petition is an expected response by a group of residents who are unhappy with an action taken by their municipal government. Tyer said their request would be given “serious consideration.”
“We will be interested to hear from the restaurant owners, and we will take the petition under serious consideration, and we’ll go from there,” she said. Tyer said 17 eateries had applied for a $5,000 grant through her Restaurant Rapid Response program, and some awards already have been made.
But, Mazzeo, whose wife, a former mayoral challenger, is being sued by Tyer’s husband, said the eligibility guidelines mean his and other restaurants don’t qualify. According to the city’s websites, among other requirements, restaurants must have had no more than $1.5 million in gross annual revenues last year, and must have seen gross revenues drop at least 50 percent because of COVID-19.
“If I lost 50 percent of sales, I’d close,” Mazzeo said.
He said the in-person dining pause has had a trickle-down effect for city restaurants. After it went into place, Benoit either laid off or reduced the hours of 20 of his 47-member staff, he said, leaving them with less to spend in the community.
Asked whether he feels he could reopen safely now, Benoit noted that he has spent over $10,000 building an outdoor patio, installing Plexiglass and otherwise making upgrades to reduce the possibility of transmission of the coronavirus.
“We’ve done indoor dining since the middle of June, and we never had a problem. I follow the state’s guidelines, and the city’s guidelines, and did what they told me to do,” he said.