Paul Capitanio of East Side Cafe, left, Craig Benoit and Michael Wendling of O'Laughlin's Pub hope to speak with the mayor tomorrow.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local restaurateurs feel that Pittsfield's recent indoor-dining ban is unfair to their businesses and a large financial burden.
On Monday, Hot Dog Ranch owner Craig Benoit stood outside City Hall with the support of other restaurant owners to ask that Mayor Linda Tyer comes out and have a conversation about the ban enacted on Nov. 12 after a dramatic spike in novel coronavirus cases.
"I want her to know that this is urgent for us," Benoit said. "You shut down one industry in the city, that's all you did."
Benoit has spoken about his petition on "It's Pittsfield Tonight" and Channel 10 News in the past couple of days and is trying to start a coalition of Pittsfield restaurants who are on the same page.
As of right now, he says he has 25 or 26 restaurant owners on board and is asking other owners interested to contact him.
Michael Wendling of O'Laughlin's Pub, Mickey Soldato of The Roasted Garlic and Zucchini's, Tony Mazzeo of Mazzeo's and Paul Capitanio of East Side Cafe joined Benoit in front of City Hall.
Tyer did not come outside but she sent Director of Administrative Services Roberta McCulloch-Dews and Executive Assistant Catherine Van Bramer to tell Benoit that they would be able to have a conversation over the Zoom virtual platform the following day.
Benoit wanted to speak to her in person, saying the exchange at City Hall was something that could have been done over email. But he and the the other restaurant owners agreed to speak with her on Tuesday.
Benoit gave McCulloch-Dews and Van Bramer a letter to pass to the mayor that outlines the struggles that this ban has put on local eateries.
This includes the last-minute nature of the ban, causing waste of expensive inventory and employees without work, the Restaurant Rapid Release Grant Program not going far enough to help all businesses because of the cap it has on the gross income of 2019, and the indoor dining ban not aligning with Gov. Charlie Baker's current orders for Massachusetts.
Benoit and the other restaurant owners want to know the numbers behind this ban and when they will be able to have indoor dining again. It's not an even playing field for Pittsfield restaurants because there's no ban in the rest of the county, they said.
Tyer suspended indoor dining until further notice
and Pittsfield schools reverted to remote after a surge of COVID-19 cases that were directly attributed to large gatherings in restaurants and private gatherings attended by individuals from multiple households. There were 169 new cases in the city in less than two weeks at the time; on Monday, there were 421 active cases of COVID-19 and a total of 15 deaths.
Tyer announced the grant program with the suspension of indoor dining
. It offers up to $5,000 to eligible restaurants to help with rent, mortgage, utilities, payroll, supplies, and inventory. Though it seems helpful, restaurant owners are criticizing that the qualifications for the grant make it hard to secure and involves a great deal of paperwork.
Michael Daly of "It's Pittsfield Tonight" aired a segment on Sunday that included Benoit and Wendling speaking about how they feel this ban is unfair to Pittsfield restaurants.
During last week's City Council meeting, this topic was brought up by Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio when he submitted a petition requesting the Health Department and the Licensing Board provide an update on warning and sanctions placed on restaurants that violate the orders in place.
This was referred to those boards, asking for a response by the next City Council meeting.
Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey stood with the petition but recognized that some patrons are not being responsible and are dining at restaurants while waiting for a COVID-19 test result or knowingly positive.
This happened in early November at The Heritage in Lenox when two patrons awaiting test results dined at the establishment at different times and found out they were positive for the virus a day later, exposing the staff.
"I just wanted to make a note that the people who have been going to these restaurants have not been notifying the restaurants of when they are positive or not, so the restaurant owners have been doing their justice and have been acting responsibly," Kavey said. "It's good for us all to understand being a business owner, we don't necessarily know whose coming into our establishment and it's just something we should all be mindful of."
Benoit said the Hot Dog Ranch has had no infractions or COVID-19 cases, but they need to have some guidelines from the mayor in the case that an employee or a customer exposes them to the virus.
"We all know we are concerned about this virus because it is very serious," he said. "But as we've gone along we've complied by all of the state's and the city's guidelines and rules and we feel that we should not be shut down for a few bad apples and that we should be given the right to prove ourselves."
Benoit had previously sent a letter to Tyer after hearing that she considered restaurants to be high spreaders of the virus and she responded:
"Pittsfield continues to see an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. These cases have been directly attributed to large gatherings in restaurants and large indoor parties held at private homes attended by individuals from multiple households."
Benoit feels that the second part of her statement considering private parties in households is not the restaurant industry's responsibility but they are being punished for it.
"Our responsibility is our restaurants and we are doing what we need to do to keep everybody safe. We do everything clean, our tables are socially distanced," he said. "Everything that they have told us to do."
Benoit said he has been forced to lay off or reduce hours for 22 of his employees. He fears that because neighboring cities are allowing indoor dining, his employees will get jobs at those restaurants and he will have no staff when the Hot Dog Ranch can seat indoors again.
The Hot Dog Ranch's takeout sales are currently down 3 percent compared to the months of March, April, and May.
Benoit has seen for himself that his customers are going outside Pittsfield to eat. He said he has gone to restaurants in other towns to see if his customers were eating there and found his suspicions were right.
"People have the other option, before they didn't have another option, we were all in the same playing field, but now they have that option to go elsewhere and they are going to go," He said. "Honestly if anybody thinks that the residents of the city of Pittsfield aren't going to go dine in other communities, then you are sadly mistaken."
As a businessman, Benoit had developed a four-legged business plan which is takeout, indoor dining, alcohol sales, and lottery sales. With this ban, three of the four legs are eliminated and Benoit is left only with indoor dining.
"I equate that with going home and cutting three legs off your kitchen table, it might be able to stand up for a bit but sooner or later it will collapse," He said. "and not being on an even playing field with the rest of the restaurants not even in the county but even in the state and even New York, I feel we are put at a serious disadvantage."
Benoit said Tyer didn't consider the trickle-down effect that this will have on the city by hurting the mom-and-pop entities that keep money in the city and support local causes and youth sports.
Kelly's Diner has been in the family since 1962 and has long-standing employees that owner Dan Kelly wants to keep through the pandemic. While he understands the seriousness of COVID-19, he said everyone takes daily risks, even just in walking out the door.
Being right down the street from the Dalton town line, he thinks the Pittsfield ban just isn't fair.
"We are just asking for an equal playing field, we rub shoulders every day at supermarkets and gas stations," he said.
Kelly said he had to hire an accountant to see if the diner would be able to apply for the restaurant grant and found it was right below the mark. Many restaurants won't even be able to apply for it, he said.
"Please reconsider what you are doing to us," Kelly said. "This is our busiest time of year when we try to stock up our money for the winter to make it through the harsh winters we have here in Massachusetts, and this is the time of the year that we make our income and tips."
Michael Wendling, of O'Laughlin's Pub, feels the city's restaurants are being punished for the actions of a few when the majority were doing the right thing.
If something were to happen at O'Laughlin's and he violated the rules, Wendling said, he would expect to be fined or shut down, not the whole city.
Wendling closed the pub for five weeks after the first suspension of indoor dining in March. Takeout was unsuccessful, so he only brought back employees when the pub was equipped for outdoor dining.
"I'm a small, Irish pub in Pittsfield, I employ nine people and I had to close. Takeout for me is not cost-effective, there's no profit in takeout for my business," he said.
In order to get outdoor dining, Wendling said he spent a great deal of money ripping up a portion of the pub's parking lot, planting grass, getting fencing, and buying outdoor furniture.
"All that wasn't free," he said.
Wendling had faith in indoor dining getting O'Laughlin's through the winter and he submitted a large order for food, alcohol, and other products right before he was told that it would be suspended immediately.
With Dalton and Lanesborough being one or two miles away, Wendling said his regular customers are just going elsewhere.
"All of my customers, they're still going out to dinner, they're not staying home," he said.
Wendling believes there has to be a better reason for the dining ban than there is right now.
"What's happening is you're crippling the restaurant industry in Pittsfield by doing this," he said.