'Not A Lot To Celebrate' For Boston Restaurant Trying To Survive The Pandemic

Dec 17, 2020
Originally published on December 20, 2020 10:59 pm

This time of year, Cornwall's Tavern in Boston would usually be booked with back-to-back Christmas parties and packed with college students celebrating the holidays.

Instead, John Beale, who owns the place with his wife, Pam, sits in the back, reading the newspaper, as Christmas music wafts down on the one lone customer having lunch. When a second customer shows up, John turns to welcome him, waving his arm at the empty space. "You can sit anywhere you want," John offers.

It's anything but a usual season.

"We did decorate a little bit, [and we] put wreaths out the front door so people would know we were open," Pam says. "But there's just not a lot of people around here and not a lot to celebrate at the moment."

As many as 1 in 4 restaurants in Massachusetts have gone out of business amid the pandemic, and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association says many more are likely as the current spike in COVID-19 cases prompts more restrictions on indoor dining. The economic casualties are even greater in Boston, which is bereft of commuters and out-of-towners and where Cornwall's is among the many trying to hang on through what's shaping up to be its toughest season yet.

The business has taken one hit after another. After straining for months with just half its seating, no bar and a strict curfew, Cornwall's sales were hovering around half what they used to be. When an even earlier curfew was imposed last month, sales nosedived even further. Then, just last week, the state tightened rules even more, dropping the restaurant to about a third of its normal business this time of year.

"It's like water torture, it's like drop by drop by drop," sighs Pam. "How do you plan?"

At Cornwall's Tavern in Boston, business slows as the pandemic surges, and Massachusetts imposes more rules and restrictions on indoor dining.
Tovia Smith / NPR

It's a constant worry

The latest order from the state limits tables to just six people — from the same household. Diners are not allowed to stay longer than 90 minutes, and they have to keep their masks on even while they're seated, flipping them up and down each time they take a sip or a bite.

"It's making it more awkward, more difficult and people are sort of chaffing against all the rules," Pam says. "But our fear is that there's more to come. You wonder what the next restrictions are going to be."

Many health experts say the state has not gone far enough. They're calling for an all-out ban on indoor dining, saying it's the only way to stop the spread of the virus indoors and curb the exponential growth in infections.

While Massachusetts restaurants are grateful to have dodged that bullet – at least so far, many are grudgingly coming to the conclusion themselves that they would be better off hibernating for the winter. They appear to be hoping to stop the bleeding in the short term, in order to survive the long term.

Cornwall's owners started considering shutting down for awhile last month, as COVID-19 cases surged, college students left town, and everyone else started hunkering down at home.

"People just disappeared," Pam says. "Everything is just sort of slipping away again, and you hope that you'll be able to go on. But it's a constant worry."

One of the biggest obstacles for restaurants is the curfew, which currently forces them to stop service at 9:30 p.m., tightened from the previous 11 p.m. curfew. Now, even when people do show up, they can't linger.

Cornwall's Tavern in Boston, Mass., would usually be bustling with holiday parties, but the restaurant is planning to close down temporarily, as COVID-19 cases surge and business plummets.
Tovia Smith / NPR

A breaking point

On a recent Thursday night, Billy Moran, Cornwall's general manager and bartender, is delighted to see a surprise flurry of students from nearby Boston University. The grad students have a tradition of coming in after their evening classes end around 9 p.m., and staying until after midnight. But this time, shortly after they arrive, who is Pam and John's nephew, starts circling the restaurant, announcing last call.

"We are closing down," he hollers over the chatter and music apologetically. "We have to."

He takes a last round of orders, and then reluctantly starts turning down the music and turning up the lights, and then begins pushing people out. The students, starved for in-person interaction, reluctantly oblige. It's a literal buzzkill. And Moran is just as frustrated.

"Closing early is a killer because those are by far the biggest revenue hours," Moran says. "You need the extended night so you can maximize [sales] in the limited seats that you have."

State officials defend the curfew as a delicate balance between public safety and the needs of small businesses. But critics say such "half-steps" may be compromising both.

Moran says it has brought Cornwall's to a breaking point.

"It's like if you want to close us, just close us," he says. "But don't keep taking away more and more. It's like 9:30 is tough to make it work. You need that extra time."

At a table near the bar, Ryan Brown and his friend, Clinton Terry, are feeling it, too. They almost didn't come in because of the curfew, Brown says, questioning whether it's worth it to "drive across town for one drink."

But they're also feeling it professionally. Terry is a restauranteur, and Brown works in restaurants and bars as a DJ. He calls the 9:30 p.m. curfew "arbitrary" and unfair. Crowded bars are one thing, Brown says, but properly-run restaurants should not be paying the price. With all their rules, precautions and built-in enforcement of social distancing, restaurants may actually be among the safer places for people to gather, Brown says, and the early curfew may do more harm than good.

Cornwall's Tavern's co-owner John Beale says business has dropped to just about a third of what it usually is this time of year, not enough to keep even the restaurant's skeletal staff busy these days.
Tovia Smith / NPR

More of a nap than a hibernation

"I think in a way it has some of the opposite effect of pushing people into houses and house parties and whatnot," he says. "That's the part that's been frustrating."

Terry owns two restaurants in Massachusetts and was supposed to open a third last spring. Instead, it's sitting empty.

"I'm just worrying as to whether everything I've built, like everything I've worked for my entire life, is going to crumble," he sighs. "Like how do I employ my staff? What do I tell them? Like are we open? Are we not open? It's just, like terrible."

The Cornwall's crew tries not to dwell on the doomsday scenarios. At least not out loud. They're focused on survival.

But, as Christmas approaches, with infections still raging and the newest rules grinding down business even more, the family finally makes the hard call to close their doors for the worst of winter.

"It's going to be pretty much of a wasteland. It doesn't really pay to turn the lights the heat on, to get food in to let it go to waste while you have nobody to serve."

The tavern is set to turn off the lights this weekend.

Pam's hoping it's more of a "nap," than a "hibernation," and she hopes it'll go more smoothly than when the state abruptly ordered restaurants closed last March. This time, the Beales are planning ahead, strategically spending down their food and beer to minimize waste, and aiming to reopen, Pam says, by the end of January.

"I'm not a Pollyanna by any means," she sighs. "But fingers crossed the new year brings new hope."

It definitely won't be the first of the year, Pam says. The goalpost keeps moving. But, she says, Cornwall's will keep chasing it.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

About 1 in 5 restaurants in the U.S. has already gone out of business because of the pandemic. There are so many just trying to hang on. That includes Cornwall's Tavern in Boston. NPR's Tovia Smith reports on how the family-owned business is fighting to survive.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: 'Tis the season when Cornwall's would usually be booked back-to-back with Christmas parties and college students celebrating the holidays, but not this year, says Pam Beale, who owns Cornwall's with her husband, John.

PAM BEALE: We did decorate a little bit, put some wreaths out the front door so people would know we were open. But there's just not a lot of people around here and not a lot to celebrate at the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Christmas music plays for the lone customer in for lunch one day this week. Both Pam and John jump up when a second shows up.

JOHN BEALE: How's it going? Sit anywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right.

SMITH: The business has taken one hit after another. After straining for months with just half their seating, no bar and a strict curfew, sales were hovering around half what they used to be. Last month, an even earlier curfew was imposed, and sales took a nosedive. Then, just last week, the state tightened rules even more.

P BEALE: It's like water torture. It's like, drop by drop by drop. How do you plan?

SMITH: The latest order limits tables to just six people who are supposed to be from the same household. Diners cannot stay longer than 90 minutes, and they have to keep their masks on even while they're seated, flipping them up and down with each sip or bite.

P BEALE: It's making it more awkward, more difficult, and people are sort of chafing against all the rules. But our fear is that there's more to come.

SMITH: Indeed, many health experts say the state has not gone far enough, and the only way to stop the spread of the virus indoors and curb the exponential growth in infections is to close indoor dining altogether. While Massachusetts restaurants are grateful to have dodged that bullet for now, many are deciding themselves to hibernate for the winter. Cornwall's started thinking about it last month as cases surged, college students left town and everyone else started hunkering down at home.

P BEALE: Everything is just sort of slipping away again, and you just hope that you'll be able to go on. But it's a constant worry.

J BEALE: Are you guys eating as well?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

SMITH: One of the biggest obstacles for restaurants is the curfew, which forces them to stop serving at 9:30. Now, even when people do show up, they can't stay.

BILLY MORAN: We are closing down. We have to. Would anybody like one last beverage?

SMITH: When a random Thursday night last month brought in a surprise flurry of students, Billy Moran, Pam's nephew and Cornwall's general manager and bartender, gives them one last call...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Two tequilas.

MORAN: Yeah, yeah. Sure.

SMITH: ...And then reluctantly starts pushing them out.

MORAN: Everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.

MORAN: We are closing.

Closing early is a killer because those are, by far, the biggest revenue hours.

SMITH: State officials defend the curfew as a delicate balance between public safety and the needs of small businesses, but critics say such half steps may be compromising both. Billy says it's brought Cornwall's to a breaking point.

MORAN: It's like, if you want to close us, just close us. But don't keep taking away more and more. It's like, 9:30 is - it's tough to make it work. You need that extra time.

RYAN BROWN: Yeah. I think that's what it is. It's, like, arbitrary.

SMITH: At a table near the back, Ryan Brown, a DJ, says crowded bars are one thing, but properly run indoor dining should not be the target. With all their rules, precautions and built-in supervision, restaurants may actually be among the safer places for people to gather, he says, and the early curfew may do more harm than good.

BROWN: I think in a way, it has some of the opposite effect of pushing people into house parties and whatnot, and that's the part that's been frustrating.

SMITH: Brown's friend, Clinton Terry, a restaurateur himself, agrees. He owns two places in Massachusetts and was supposed to open a third last summer. Instead, it's sitting empty.

CLINTON TERRY: Just worrying as to whether everything I've built, like, everything I've worked for my entire life, is it going to crumble? How do I employ my staff? And what do I tell them? Are we open? Are we not open? It's just terrible.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Thank you, Billy.

MORAN: Good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Good to see you as well.

SMITH: The Cornwall's crew tries not to dwell on the doomsday scenarios, at least not out loud. They're focused on survival. But as Christmas approaches with infections still raging and the newest rules grinding down business even more, the family finally makes the hard call to temporarily close their doors this weekend during the worst of winter.

P BEALE: It's going to be pretty much of a wasteland, so it really doesn't pay to turn the lights, the heat, you know, on, to get food in to just have it go to waste while you have nobody to serve.

SMITH: Pam's hoping it's more of a nap than a hibernation, and she hopes it'll go more smoothly than when the state abruptly closed restaurants last March. This time, they're planning ahead, strategically spending down their food and beer to minimize waste so they'll be ready to reopen, she hopes, sometime in January.

P BEALE: I'm not a Pollyanna by any means, but fingers crossed that the new year brings, you know, new hope.

SMITH: It definitely won't be the first of the year, Pam says. The goalpost keeps moving, but she says Cornwall's will keep chasing it.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.