Assessing Covid damage to bars and restaurants

Up to 35 percent of retail alcoholic beverage licensees and 20 percent of state licensees may not renew in the new year due to the Covid-19 pandemic’s “major economic toll” on bars and restaurants, according to Treasurer Deb Goldberg.

“The outlook for fiscal year 2022 is not strong,” Goldberg told lawmakers on Dec. 15 during a hearing on state revenue expectations for the next budget cycle.

While her assessment was limited to alcohol license holders, rather than the state’s revenue picture at large, the treasurer’s comments underscore troubles in an industry that is scrambling to survive after watching about 250,000 of its 300,000 jobs evaporate when the coronavirus arrived here in March.

The Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which regulates about 9,000 licensees, will know more about how many bars and restaurants opt not to renew licenses in early January. But if industry non-renewal estimates hold up, Goldberg, who oversees the ABCC, said the state could see licensing revenues fall by $200,000 to $350,000.

“That’s sobering news,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz said to Goldberg. “Not surprising though, in terms of where what we’re seeing in all our districts throughout the Commonwealth.”

Michlewitz, whose downtown Boston district is spackled with restaurants, wore a Regina Pizzeria mask to show his support for the industry, which has had to adapt to reduced capacity requirements, new takeout options, and enforcement to guard against virus transmission.

When restaurants were shut down in the spring to slow the spread of the virus, the ABCC, working with the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and the Massachusetts Wholesalers, issued an order allowing repayment plans to alleviate licensee cash flow problems. Those plans have been successful, she said.

However, it has been a long slog for restaurants, and many have not survived.

Bob Luz, president of the restaurant association, last week told State House Takeout, the News Service’s podcast, that 3,400 of the state’s 16,000 restaurants never reopened after springtime closures, a number he said has since been updated to 4,000. “That’s roughly 25 percent of what was there,” he said.

On Dec. 8, Gov. Baker, in response to the pandemic’s second surge, announced a new round of rules for restaurants.

Patrons now must wear masks at all times except when eating and drinking, restaurants are banned from seating more than six patrons per table, and parties are limited to 90 minutes at their seats. Musical performances at restaurants are not allowed anymore, and food court seating in malls was shut down.

Those rules, combined with the loss of seasonal outdoor dining options, have caused more restaurants to take another option: “hibernating for the winter.”