Heather Mojer’s impassioned Instagram post came out of frustration.
On September 28, Mojer, co-owner and beverage director at Big Dipper Hospitality Group (Café Du Pays, Mamaleh’s Delicatessen, State Park) posted a message on State Park’s Instagram page that denounced the idea that indoor dining is safe during a pandemic.
“We want restaurants to work so badly that we are willing to lie to ourselves,” she wrote. “We know the act of dining is aerosol-generating, with the laughing, chewing, storytelling goodtimes of a typical meal out. And it doesn’t take a scientist to tell you that you can’t eat with a mask on. Then, try to prove how well the ventilation works in the restaurant space (prob. as old as the nearby school still closed for the same reason).”
As the region’s restaurants have started to prepare for winter by outfitting their indoor dining rooms with plexiglass barriers or installing insulated globes on the patio, many have refrained from opening indoors altogether — or have tried indoor dining and decided to go into hibernation instead.
Big Dipper Hospitality Group’s restaurants closed for indoor dining in March, and have focused solely on takeout and patio dining since reopening.
“It just seemed really hypocritical,” Mojer told Boston.com. “There’s no precedent elsewhere in the economy to go inside for some random amount of time to take your mask off. It’s frustrating because it seems counter to all the guidance from the CDC [that] if you’re planning to go inside for an extended amount of time, try to move that situation outdoors, but if you do have to go inside, keep it quick, avoid large gatherings, and keep your mask on. All of that for some reason is just tossed aside with indoor dining, and that’s how it’s frustrating for us. It just seems like some industries are getting hit real hard with restrictions, while our industry has been, for some reason that is hard to put my finger on, we’ve been left for dead.”
Mojer doesn’t think that her restaurant group’s decision was an anomaly. She believes that keeping indoor dining rooms closed, whether for safety or financial reasons, is a choice that isn’t being talked about enough.
“Our decision to keep our business outdoors is a decision that works for us,” she said. “We aren’t saying that it’s the right decision or the decision for everyone. It’s just what we need to do.”
Kristen and Dan Valachovic, owners of Vee Vee in Jamaica Plain, agreed that safety was their No. 1 concern.
“It’s not worth a few bucks to endanger the lives of our staff, our guests, or ourselves,” Kristen shared in an e-mail. “The building is old, and our only air circulation comes from ceiling fans or open doors and windows, which cold weather wouldn’t allow. Our layout is such that, in order to meet spacing requirements, we could only use about three or four of our tables. A few tables surrounded by plexiglass isn’t a vibe we consider inviting.”
The Valachovics closed Vee Vee on March 15 and haven’t considered opening for indoor dining since then, though they did transform the restaurant’s back courtyard into an outdoor patio, which launched in July. Takeout and outdoor dining have sustained them for the past three months, Kristen said.
Roxbury’s Haley House Bakery Café also debuted an outdoor patio for the summer and fall, but has kept its indoor dining room closed since the shutdown, and the cafe is instead relying primarily on contracted catering, gift cards, takeout, and delivery. General manager Misha Thomas said their team originally ran the numbers to see if indoor dining might be feasible, but the vastly reduced seats, the limited staff, and the cost to make any major pivots — not to mention the issue of safety — wasn’t worth it. The choice to close their dining room has resulted in the loss of a community gathering space.
“We were a hub for spoken word events, music events, a place for people to meet,” she said. “This was a place where a lot of people gathered and had really impactful conversations in general — especially with what’s going on in the world politically, this would have been the room you sat in and had that talk instead of being confined to a keyboard.”
Other restaurants have tried to operate indoors and concluded that it doesn’t work for financial reasons.
Michael Serpa, owner of Back Bay restaurants Select Oyster Bar and Grand Tour, recently announced that Grand Tour was going into hibernation on September 30. (A handful of other local restaurants, including Commonwealth and The Kenmore, have done the same.) The small French bistro, which opened on Newbury Street in January, offered indoor and outdoor dining throughout the pandemic, but Serpa said that Grand Tour’s tight quarters just weren’t conducive to operating indoors right now.
“The actual physical space is very narrow and low, a basement sort of thing,” he said. “So people are a little more hesitant about dining inside compared to Select [Oyster Bar]. Some people were fine with it, and obviously we were keeping all the tables six feet apart and doing all the cautionary things we need to do, but the space was just not comfortable for most people.”
Serpa, who is still paying full rent for the space, said he looked at the fixed cost for just locking the doors and waiting it out, versus keeping it open and not knowing what the future might hold.
“Now you have a lot of staff or even just a couple staff [if you open], you don’t know how busy you’re going to be, you have product coming in, you have some sort of waste, you have to pay for linens and trash,” he said. “So the risk is that you can open and lose more money than just being closed. At that point, it just doesn’t make too much sense to be open.”
Instead, he’s focusing on opening Atlántico in the coming weeks, a Spanish- and Portuguese-inspired cafe and tapas bar with a focus on seafood. The restaurant is more spacious than Grand Tour, with the ability to seat around 70 guests. Serpa said it will allow him to bring his staff over from Grand Tour and keep them employed.
For restaurant owners who have made the decision to close their dining rooms, the timing of reopening isn’t so clear cut.
Mojer said that while an external influence — like a vaccine or a lower case count — might serve as an impetus for reopening inside, the building’s landlord or her staff might have an influence as well.
“I think we could find ourselves in a position where the landlord says ‘you need to do indoor dining, we need to have you guys open all winter and we don’t see a way of doing it on the patio, so figure out a way to do it inside,'” she said. “Or [if] our staff has all agreed that we want to switch to indoor dining, we could decide to call a team meeting and come up with some sort of hybrid indoor service, just because we feel so bent backwards by the pressure to ring numbers or provide jobs since the government isn’t supporting us anymore … I don’t know if we’ll have to get there or face that, but there’s so much uncertainty and it’s hard to know where we’ll go with this.”
Kristen expressed the same worry. While she shared that there are a number of developments, including a vaccine, they would need to see before considering a reopening at Vee Vee, some restaurants may not have a choice.
“Our concern is that intense financial pressure will force restaurant owners into a place where they feel they have no other option but to open their dining rooms, despite the risk, and especially as we head into winter and yet another wave of illness,” she said. “A choice between financial viability and abetting the spread of the virus is one that no business owner should have to make.”
At Haley House, a vaccine is considered a threshold for reopening indoors.
“Long before the government allowed restaurants to open back up and let people inside, we decided we wanted to wait until the vaccine was handy,” Thomas said. “Just because the government says something is OK doesn’t mean it’s actually OK … We’re veering on the side of safety, regardless of what everyone is doing.”
What many restaurateurs agree on is that government assistance is needed, primarily in the form of the Restaurants Act, a $120 billion relief package that is part of a second pandemic bailout. The outcome of that stimulus package is in flux: On Tuesday afternoon, President Trump called off negotiations for the bailout until after the election, then reversed his decision in a series of tweets asking for Congress to approve $25 billion for airlines and $135 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which would help small business like independent restaurants.
Mojer isn’t holding her breath for a bailout. Instead, she and her team are focusing on keeping guests and staff safe by continuing to operate Big Dipper Hospitality’s restaurants outdoors.
“We can’t afford a single coronavirus outbreak,” she said. “That’s not just for the business, it’s for our staff. We feel responsible for their health and well being.”
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