The tension between restaurateurs and city government was relieved somewhat Wednesday after the Board of Health voted to allow indoor dining to resume in Pittsfield. The move was celebrated as a win by local eateries, many of whom expressed frustration after the Nov. 12 order to cease dine-in service after the city saw a spike in coronavirus cases.
Preserving the vitality of small businesses — along with the livelihoods of their owners and workers — and protecting the public from a deadly and contagious pandemic has proven a fraught balance for many leaders, especially those in communities that are seeing an alarming spread of a virus that has killed a quarter-million Americans and counting. These kinds of calls will never be easy, but there are ways to address these concerns that could help alleviate some of the hard feelings when tough calls need to be made amid an ongoing public health crisis.
When pressed with a petition from dozens of restaurant owners that claimed the indoor dining pause unfairly targeted them, Mayor Linda Tyer replied that the city government’s moves to curb COVID-19 are ”based on science and data.” It’s heartening to hear that the administration is putting public safety first, striving to do so from a data-informed approach. What would greatly benefit the affected parties as well as the public at large is being transparent and specific about what the preconditions for those decisions are — e.g., total cases, transmission rate, positive test rate or some combination thereof. Many school districts, including Pittsfield’s, have expressly established what metrics would qualify a shift in policy or procedure, so that students, faculty and parents at least can monitor in real time the statistics that inform decisions on their day-to-day lives. Small businesses like restaurants also deserve similar awareness.
It would also insulate the decisions from appearing capricious to those who will be most impacted by them. When individual sectors like dining are affected, it behooves the city to demonstrate that policies are simply based on cold, hard data and are not, as many local establishments perceived it, unfairly targeted. Conversely, when restrictions like these are lifted, the general public should also be convinced that these are evidence-based decisions, and not just concessions to incensed local businesses.
Public health strictures to blunt the spread of COVID have significantly eaten into many dining destinations’ bottom lines. The Independent Restaurant Coalition’s grim estimate that 85 percent of the country’s small restaurants could shutter by year’s end underscores the anxiety felt by restaurateurs everywhere. Pittsfield and the rest of Berkshire County are not immune from this chilling effect, as evidenced by testimonies of representatives from city restaurants at the Board of Health’s meeting this week.
“I’m laying off 38 kids a couple weeks before Christmas time,” said Eleanor Clancy, a regional director for Applebee’s in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, of the effects of the indoor dining pause on the Pittsfield location. “I field phone calls every day (from) people in tears asking me how they’re going to pay their bills.”
But local health officials had good reason for concern. In the month of November alone, Pittsfield logged 422 cases of COVID-19. Even putting aside approximately a third of those cases that stemmed from Hillcrest Commons Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, that’s more cases than the city saw in eight months between the pandemic’s arrival in March through October. Just on Wednesday, the city reported more positive COVID-19 tests — 41 — than the number of infections in the months of July and August combined. This alarming growth trend has pushed Pittsfield into the state’s highest-risk “red” designation — an “extreme increase in cases,” according to the city’s Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong, that necessitated aggressive response.
It’s worth noting that this localized spike in COVID cases correlated with the expected colder temperatures of late fall. That meant people going to restaurants were less likely to eat outside and more likely to dine in — i.e., sit indoors for extended periods of time in close contact with others while removing one’s mask to eat or drink. When indoor dining was initially suspended a few weeks ago, city health leaders said that contact tracing, while sometimes difficult to manage, revealed that “employees of an undisclosed number of local restaurants had also attended Halloween parties where transmission occurred,” according to Eagle reporting.
All of this is to say that it’s not unreasonable for local health officials to be cautious about the effects of indoor dining on the spread of the coronavirus. In allowing for the resumption of indoor dining, the city was smart to institute some new rules. The city will have a stricter limit on table seating than the state — limited to six instead of 10 — and restaurants must collect a name and contact information from at least one person at each table to make contact tracing easier. Board of Health Chairman Dr. Alan Kulberg also stressed that it’s up to restaurants to enforce public health rules that might be inconvenient but are mandated by state order — namely that diners wear masks at all times when they are not eating or drinking, even if they’re still seated at a table. Many local restaurant owners who chafed at the indoor dining pause protested that they go to great lengths to protect their customers; now they must live up to their word.
It is an incredibly difficult time for so many — for those who scrape out a livelihood in the restaurant business, but also those who fear losing a vulnerable loved one to the most deadly pandemic in a century. Former City Council President Melissa Mazzeo, who is married to the owner of Mazzeo’s Ristorante, slammed the indoor dining pause as “a big disservice to the economy in Pittsfield.” It’s understandable that these tensions bubble to the surface when difficult decisions are made. But what would really be a disservice is unnecessarily pitting small businesses and local government against each other when we have a dangerous common enemy: the virus.
The promising news of vaccine development provides a pinhole of light at the end of this tunnel. Now is the time to redouble common-sense caution in an effort to hold strong until widespread vaccination can hopefully return a sense of normalcy and relief after this protracted gauntlet of tribulation and sacrifice. Until then, we are all in this together.