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Nation & World

'Tis The Season To Struggle For Boston Restaurant Trying To Survive The Pandemic

Cornwall's Tavern's owners Pam and John Beal are in survival mode. They're hoping a short-term pause in business as COVID-19 infections surge, will allow them to reopen stronger by the end of January.
Cornwall's Tavern's owners Pam and John Beal are in survival mode. They're hoping a short-term pause in business as COVID-19 infections surge, will allow them to reopen stronger by the end of January.

'Tis the season when Cornwall's Tavern in Boston would usually be booked back -to-back with Christmas parties, and packed with college students celebrating the holidays. Instead, John Beale, who owns the place with his wife, Pam, sits in the back, reading the newspaper, as Christmas music wafts down on the one lone customer having lunch. When a second customer shows up, John turns to welcome him, waving his arm at the empty space. "You can sit anywhere you want," John offers.

It's anything but a usual season.

"We did decorate a little bit, [and we] put wreaths out the front door so people would know we were open," Pam says. "But there's just not a lot of people around here and not a lot to celebrate at the moment."

As many as one in four restaurants in Massachusetts have already succumbed to the pandemic and have gone out of business, and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association saysmany more are likely as the current spike in COVID-19 cases prompts more restrictions on indoor dining. The economic casualties are even greater in Boston, where Cornwall's is among the many trying to hang on, through what's shaping up to be its toughest season yet.

The business has taken one hit after another. After straining for months with just half its seating, no bar, and a strict curfew, Cornwall's sales were hovering around half what they used to be. When an even earlier curfew was imposed last month, sales nosedived even further. Then, just last week, the state tightened rules even more, dropping to about a third of their normal business this time of year.

"It's like water torture, it's like drop by drop by drop," sighs Pam. "How do you plan?"

At Cornwall's Tavern in Boston, business slows as the pandemic surges, and Massachusetts imposes more rules and restrictions on indoor dining.
Tovia Smith / NPR
At Cornwall's Tavern in Boston, business slows as the pandemic surges, and Massachusetts imposes more rules and restrictions on indoor dining.

It's a constant worry

The latest order from the state limits tables to just six people, who are supposed to be from the same household. Diners are not allowed to stay longer than 90 minutes, and they have to keep their masks on even while they're seated, flipping them up and down each time they take a sip or a bite.

"It's making it more awkward, more difficult and people are sort of chaffing against all the rules," Pam says. "But our fear is that there's more to come. You wonder what the next restrictions are going to be."

Indeed, many health experts say the state has not gone far enough. They're calling for an all-out ban on indoor dining, saying it's the only way to stop the spread of the virus indoors, and curb the exponential growth in infections.

While Massachusetts restaurants are grateful to have dodged that bullet – at least so far, many are grudgingly coming to the conclusion themselves, that they'd be better off hibernating for the winter. They're hoping to stop the bleeding in the short term, in order to survive the long term.

Cornwall's started considering it last month, as COVID-19 cases surged, college students left town, and everyone else started hunkering down at home.

"People just disappeared," Pam says. "Everything is just sort of slipping away again, and you hope that you'll be able to go on. But it's a constant worry."

One of the biggest obstacles for restaurants, is the curfew, that currently forces them to stop service at 9:30 p.m. instead of 11:00 p.m.. Now, even when people do show up, they can't linger.

Cornwall's Tavern in Boston, Mass., would usually be bustling with holiday parties, but the restaurant is planning to close down temporarily, as COVID-19 cases surge and business plummets.
Tovia Smith / NPR
Cornwall's Tavern in Boston, Mass., would usually be bustling with holiday parties, but the restaurant is planning to close down temporarily, as COVID-19 cases surge and business plummets.

A breaking point

On a recent Thursday night, Billy Moran, Pam and John's nephew, and Cornwall's general manager and bartender, is delighted to see a surprise flurry of students from nearby Boston University. The grad students have a tradition of coming in after their evening classes end around 9:00 p.m., and staying until after midnight. But this time, shortly after they arrive, Billy starts circling the restaurant, announcing last call.

"We are closing down," he hollers over the chatter and music apologetically. "We have to."

He takes a last round of orders, and then reluctantly starts turning off the music, then the lights, and then begins pushing people out. The students, starved for in-person interaction, reluctantly oblige. It's a literal buzz-kill. And Moran is just as frustrated.

"Closing early is a killer because those are by far the biggest revenue hours," Moran says. "You need the extended night so you can maximize [sales] in the limited seats that you have.

State officials defend the curfew, as a delicate balance between public safety and the needs of small businesses. But critics say such "half-steps" may be compromising both.

Moran says it's brought Cornwall's to a breaking point.

"It's like if you want to close us, just close us," he says. "But don't keep taking away more and more. It's like 9;30 is tough to make it work. You need that extra time."

At a table near the bar, Ryan Brown and his friend, Clinton Terry, are feeling it too. They almost didn't come in because of the curfew, Brown says, questioning whether it's worth it to "drive across town for one drink."

But they're also feeling it professionally. Terry is a restauranteur, and Brown works in restaurants and bars as a DJ. He calls the 9:30 p.m. curfew "arbitrary" and unfair. Crowded bars are one thing, Brown says, but properly-run restaurants should not be paying the price. With all their rules, precautions, and built-in enforcement of social distancing, restaurants may actually be among the safer places for people to gather, Brown says, and the early curfew may do more harm than good.

Cornwall's Tavern's co-owner John Beale says business has dropped to just about a third of what it usually is this time of year, not enough to keep even the restaurant's skeletal staff busy these days.
Tovia Smith / NPR
Cornwall's Tavern's co-owner John Beale says business has dropped to just about a third of what it usually is this time of year, not enough to keep even the restaurant's skeletal staff busy these days.

More of a nap than a hibernation

"I think in a way it has some of the opposite effect of pushing people into houses and house parties and what not," he says. "That's the part that's been frustrating."

Terry owns two restaurants in Massachusetts, and was supposed to open a third last spring. Instead, it's sitting empty.

"I'm just worrying as to whether everything I've built, like everything I've worked for my entire life, is going to crumble," he sighs. "Like how do I employ my staff? What do I tell them? Like are we open? Are we not open? It's just like terrible."

The Cornwall's crew tries not to dwell on the doomsday scenarios. At least not out loud. They're focused on survival.

But, as Christmas approaches, with infections still raging and the newest rules grinding down business even more, the family finally makes the hard call to close their doors for the worst of winter.

"It's going to be pretty much of a wasteland. It doesn't really pay to turn the lights the heat on, to get food in to let it go to waste while you have nobody to serve."

Pam's hoping it's more of a "nap," than a "hibernation," and she hopes it'll go more smoothly than when the state abruptly ordered restaurants closed last March. This time, they're planning ahead, strategically spending down their food and beer to minimize waste, and aiming to re-open, Pam says, by the end of January.

"I'm not a Pollyanna by any means," she sighs. "But fingers crossed the new year brings new hope."

It definitely won't be the first of the year, Pam says. The goalpost keeps moving. But, she says, Cornwall's will keep chasing it.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.