Craig Benoit, who pulled together a coalition of restaurant owners, speaks during a meeting with the mayor on Tuesday.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The city's restaurateurs and the mayor may have come up with compromise to allow indoor dining to recommence — if the Board of Health signs off.
A group of about 25 eatery owners pressed Mayor Linda Tyer to lift the ban on indoor dining instituted on Nov. 12 after a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases, some of which could traced back to gatherings at several local restaurants.
Craig Benoit of the Hot Dog Ranch and several others stood outside City Hall on Monday
asking Tyer to come outside and hear about the financial struggles caused by the ban.
Instead, Tyer agreed to speak with them over the Zoom online platform on Tuesday. The conversation resulted in two proposals: one to limit the number of people allowed at a table and the other to schedule biweekly meetings between the mayor's COVID-19 task force and restaurant owners coalition.
The Board of Health is meeting on Wednesday and Tyer plans to ask Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong and board Chairman Dr. Alan Kulberg to advocate for reopening the restaurants. That would be dependent reducing the state limit of 10 people at a table to six.
Tyer thought that this would be a good experiment to do, as the city could monitor positive case trends closely in this situation.
"One of the things I would be interested in knowing is if we set a table limit of six and observed the trend for a couple of weeks, made sure that everything was still trending downward or flattening, and then we could revisit the possibility of 10 people per table," she said.
The indoor dining is listed as an emergency order on the board's agenda for Wednesday. Tyer said they will likely have a good idea of a date for reopening by Friday.
The mayor provided the coalition with a walkthrough of the data the city used to determine this ban, noting that the numbers included community spread of the novel coronavirus and not the high volume of cases that have recently occurred at long-term care facilities.
On the chart, the surge started around Nov. 4, right after Halloween weekend. From Nov. 6 to Nov. 12, there was an upward trend and this is when the Board of Health issued the indoor dining suspension. The cases peaked five days after the suspension.
Beginning on Nov. 22, for the next eight days or so there, was a trend of lowering case counts. On Nov. 30, there was a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.
The conclusion that the COVID-19 Task Force made Monday morning was that the response they put in place worked to slow the spread, but they are starting to see some different trends of transmission unrelated to restaurants.
These trends include household spread.
Tyer said the task force has some anxiety about the possible post-Thanksgiving surge, so they are looking closely at the data from this week and next.
In response to Benoit's concerns about the lack of established protocols for what to do if a customer or staff member tests positive for the virus, Tyer said she and the Health Department are happy to instruct them on a case-by-case basis.
"We want to make sure that if you experience any positive cases in restaurants that you let us know because then we can help you immediately," she said. "Not three or four days later when things may have gotten beyond our ability to contain it."
Benoit said it would be helpful to establish an initial protocol that is done before a restaurant even notifies the city. He thinks it would be a safer solution for everyone involved.
He also requested that the Board of Health provide signage for mask enforcement and social distancing so that customers are more likely to comply.
Melissa Mazzeo of Mazzeo's Restaurant thinks that a representative from the service industry should be on the COVID-19 Task Force for representation.
"It's always easy to try to make decisions that you feel are the right things for everyone, but if you don't know all the nuances of what it means to run a business, like Craig saying he just got his order in and 24 hours later he was being told he has to shut down," the former councilor said. "There is product that has to be cooked and set up and stuff. Those are the things that you wouldn't know unless you were in the business."
Mazzeo feels the shut down was a "knee-jerk" reaction to the rise in cases and that individual offenders should be shut down, not all restaurants.
"I'm getting upset because I feel for every one of these people," she said. "Including my own family."
Another concern that the coalition had was the inaccessible nature of the Restaurant Rapid Response Grant Program that gives $5,000 to eligible restaurants to cover expenses.
Restaurant owners said the cap of $1.5 million in sales for 2019 would disqualify many restaurants from receiving the funding, including themselves.
Tony Mazzeo of Mazzeo's argued that all Pittsfield restaurants should receive this grant because they are all in the same boat with their hands tied because of the indoor dining ban.
Tyer encouraged them to apply despite the cap and request a waiver if they feel that they don't meet guidelines, saying they would be considered.
According to the mayor, there are currently 17 applications for grants with the ability to accommodate more.
Benoit pulled the coalition together in a matter of days and hopes to establish it as a support system for restaurants to navigate COVID-19 outbreaks and city guidelines.
"Let us do our jobs," he said to Tyer. "We will do it to the best of our ability, we know what's going on now we know why you closed us all down, now we know what not to do. Like I said, we will get our group together, police ourselves, and do what we need to do."