The toll that the Covid-19 pandemic has taken on small businesses is, in my opinion, just as upsetting and heartbreaking as the death toll. But it is difficult to determine how much of the harm to businesses is due to the virus itself and how much is due to the strict measures governments have implemented in response to it.
In Massachusetts, for example, restaurants must space tables 6 feet apart, sanitize tables and chairs between each party, frequently sanitize door handles, sinks, toilet seats, etc., make hand sanitizer available, provide condiments only in single-serving containers, and screen employees for symptoms every day according to the state’s mandatory safety standards. These policies make sense from a safety standpoint but add to restaurants’ operating costs and reduce their capacity. Worse, bars are prohibited entirely from opening, and Governor Charlie Baker has indicated that he will not allow them to open until a vaccine or effective treatment for Covid-19 is found. And in an apparent attempt to make things as difficult as possible for beer gardens and breweries, Baker introduced a new rule prohibiting customers from drinking alcohol if they do not also purchase food prepared on site. “Bars are closed in Massachusetts,” Baker said when explaining this mean-spirited new measure. “And bars masquerading as restaurants also need to be closed.”
Baker recently addressed the loss of many Massachusetts restaurants but declined to place any of the blame on his own executive orders. “It’s heartbreaking to see the way some of this plays out,” he said. “But if the customers aren’t there, then the rules at some level at the end of the day really aren’t going to solve the problem.” Baker even implied that stringent restrictions might help the economy get back to normal in the long run: “Honestly it’s why we’ve been so aggressive about trying to get this notion across that the most important thing we need to do, as a commonwealth, is to beat this thing back, because the more we beat it back, the more opportunity there is for people to feel comfortable that they can do some of the things they were doing before… The economic consequences of the virus, period, even with things that are open and available to customers, is profound and significant, and in many cases incredibly distressing.”
In Boston, we’ve lost Cheers, Legal Test Kitchen, Bergamot, Parsnip, The Pour House, Dick’s Last Resort, Lir, Popover King, the Friendly Toast, and iconic sports bar The Fours, to name just a few (you can see a more extensive list here). Café chain Pret A Manger closed all of its Boston locations, and David’s Tea closed of all its stores in the U.S. The Lafayette House, a restaurant and inn in Foxboro built in 1784, closed and is slated for demolition. In my town of Malden, we’ve lost Chinese restaurant Mandarin, tea house Chatime, and convenience store Village Mart, to give just a few examples. Peruvian-Italian restaurant Taranta in Boston’s North End cited, among other things, the fact that it could only operate at 30% capacity due to the government restrictions as a reason for going out of business.
Baker is correct in pointing out that the economy as a whole, and restaurants in particular, would almost certainly be suffering somewhat even without any government restrictions. Many people do not feel safe doing the activities they used to do and are voluntarily curtailing their activities in order to reduce their risk of catching the virus. And there is some logic to Baker’s contention that in the long run, the sooner the virus disappears, the sooner business conditions will return to normal. But the problem is that many, if not most, businesses cannot wait that long. Instead of living under draconian restrictions in an attempt, which may or may not succeed, to eradicate the virus, the world needs to learn to live with the reality that every activity carries some risk. Letting businesses make their own decisions about what safety measures to implement and customers to make their own decisions about which businesses they feel safe patronizing, is the best and fairest path forward. It is impossible to determine what percentage of the pain for restaurants and bars is due to people’s voluntary curtailing of their activities and what percentage is due to the government restrictions. But it’s safe to say that the restrictions are certainly not helping. By implementing these restrictions, Baker has decided that he values safety more than both the survival of small businesses and people’s rights to make their own decisions. The virus is making things hard enough on businesses; the last thing they need is government restrictions making things even harder.