In Partnership with The Public's Radio

With Winter Coming, New England’s Restaurants Need Federal Help

Every day brings more bad news about New England’s restaurant industry. The Public’s Radio political analyst Scott MacKay says this industry will need help to survive COVID-19 and the coming cold weather.

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Birch, Nick’s on Westmister, Bar Louis and Bravo, all in Providence. The Red Stripe in East Greenwich, Eleven Forty-Nine in Warwick, Griswold’s Tavern in Newport, Blackie’s in Smithfield, The Venus de Milo in Swansea. These are just a few of the restaurants that have shuttered in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many were in business for so long that they were as comfortable as an old slipper in the back of your closet. They were the places we celebrated life’s milestones: retirements, birthdays, graduations. Did any establishment witness more wedding toasts hoisted or garters tossed than the Venus?

But the virus coupled with the economic downturn that has sent joblessness soaring has been devastating for restaurants, caterers and hotels. It’s like the textile industry in the 1950’s and 60’s, when every day brought news of a factory leaving New England for the cheap-labor South.

There are many reasons for this.

In Providence, restaurants downtown rely on traffic from the Dunkin Donuts Center, the Providence Performing Arts Center, Trinity Rep Theater and the Rhode Island Convention Center, all closed. Rhode Islanders of a certain age recall a generation ago when their capital city had more dive bars than establishments anyone wanted to set foot in.

State Sen. Josh Miller, a Cranston Democrat, is one of the few lawmakers in the restaurant business. The owner of two Providence venues, he fears fall and winter will force more closings.

Miller and other restaurant owners have embraced new ways of running an old business.

Beefing up take-out and food delivery and embracing outdoor seating have kept some taverns and eateries in business. Restaurateurs have also erected hockey rink-like plexiglass barriers to protect customers.

Miller has set up 10 picnic tables in the parking lot of his waterfront restaurant, the Hot Club, to draw customers during good weather. In Warren, John Loughlin of Crossroads Restaurant has a new outdoor seating area, along with plexiglass separating the bar from customers’ stools. Loughlin worries about what a winter chill will bring, but says he is lucky that he and his family have been in the same venue for 43 years, own the real estate and have a strong carry-out following.

Rhode Island state government has been helpful around the margins. Inspectors are trying to ensure that restaurants play by the rules. Take-out liquor sales have been allowed for the first time. Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, head of the state health department, is on radio spots urging folks to dine outdoors.

Yet, the state can do only so much. Sen. Miller says there is still too much cheating by unscrupulous owners who know they can make more money by fudging the social distance and mask rules. And there isn’t a restaurant business model that works with fifty or sixty percent capacity.

Even when New England operators are playing by the rules, the national media has picked up on incidents in other states where crowded taverns and patrons partying as if prohibition is coming back have spread the virus. Virus guru Dr. Anthony Fauci has pointed to bars as transmitters and says some states should shut them down.

Restaurants are also important because they provide jobs. Nearly 60,000 people work at 3,000 establishments in this industry in Rhode Island, according to data from the RI Hospitality Association. When local eateries lock their doors, empty storefronts result. And the decline in rooms and meals taxes from closings pump more red ink into state budgets already awash in deficits.

Without help, nearly 40 percent of Rhode Island’s restaurants are in jeopardy of closing, says Dale Venturini, president of the state Hospitality Association. With the state facing a $900 million deficit, federal help is needed.

Rhode Island Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse support a $120 billion federal program to help this industry. This bi-partisan legislation would provide a lifeline for restaurants that provide jobs and enjoyment for so many of us.

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