MIDDLESEX - Overused cliche that it is, citizens’ willingness to answer the long-refrained call to “shop and eat local” will likely determine the very survival of their communities’ “mom and pop” business ventures.
According to regional business advocates like Woburn Business Association executive director Chris Kisiel and Lisa Egan, who manages the Reading/North Reading Chamber of Commerce, many local merchants are trying to climb back to their feet after being forced to shutter their downtown and neighborhood storefronts at the height of an economic boom.
Nearly three full months after the COVID-19 crisis resulted in a near complete shutdown on local economic activity, a myriad of small business owners are re-earning their hard-fought-for slice of the American dream by reopening their ventures in the midst of a dramatically changed landscape.
And with the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating that some 40 million citizens are now out-of-work — a figure which accounts for the stunning 16 percent unemployment rate for Massachusetts’ workforce — it’s hard to imagine the economic stakes being higher.
“I think it’s a matter of trying to rise above all the stress and collaborate together,” said Egan, who has been inspired by the local business community’s ability to stay upbeat and overcome adversity. “If we want them to survive, we have to be flexible. People are [facing overwhelming financial troubles] and many haven’t had income since March.”
“Shop local,” Egan later urged citizens. “I know you’ve heard that so many times it doesn’t really resonate anymore, but it’s so important now.”
In recent weeks, the state has slowly allowed local merchants to serve food at area restaurants and allow customers back inside their small shops, but with a plethora of attached conditions and industry-specific caveats.
Responding contrary to government’s reputation of being slow-moving and inflexible, local officials in The Middlesex East coverage area have swiftly emerged with offers of assistance. Not only able to interpret and enact local reopening guidelines in response to the state directives within days, leaders in cities and towns like Woburn, Winchester, Stoneham, and Reading have also jumped at the chance to help small businesses understand the COVID-19 regulations.
For example, in Stoneham, the Select Board has held multiple meetings over the past few weeks in order to process applications from at least seven restaurateurs looking to open emergency outdoor dining areas on public property.
With Stoneham Square’s sidewalks making it difficult to accommodate seating due to American Disability Act regulations, town officials are also examining the possibility of allowing seating within parallel parking spaces along Route 28 or even on the Town Common.
Lastly, the Select Board has waived all hours-of-operation restrictions on existing site plan and liquor license approvals, which is enabling merchants to stay open seven days a week until 11 p.m.
“Obviously, whatever we can do, especially in light of what these businesses have been through,” said Select Board member George Seibold, who recently offered to personally assist any Stoneham business owner set up fencing areas and jersey barriers around new outdoor seating areas. “When it comes to this, I’m hoping to be a little more flexible than normal. I want to be as lenient as possible.”
In nearby Woburn, the city’s License Commission weeks ago delegated emergency powers to Mayor Scott Galvin to approve outdoor seating areas, including temporary liquor license applications from restaurants eyeing the use of public spaces like sidewalks and parking lots.
Earlier this month, Reading’s Select Board, interpreting the state’s reopening plan to require a public hearing for outdoor liquor licenses and seating areas in public spaces, scrambled to convene those gatherings and okay pending applications. Already, the Venetian Moon, a popular Reading Center eatery, has been given permission to erect an semi-permanent tent structure in a public parking area off of Main Street, while six other local eateries have also had temporary outdoor dining areas okayed.
“The town approved that in eight days. So I think people realize [these businesses] need support. They need it now more than ever,” said Egan, referring to Reading’s approach to the Venetian Moon site plan and other reopening requests.
In a model being eyed by Stoneham, Winchester has also okayed outdoor seating areas within public parking spaces in its downtown areas, so long as that off-street eating area is blocked off by jersey barriers.
Hard to interpret
At the outset of this week, the state, which in early May unveiled a four-phase economic reopening plan, green-lighted the beginning of what authorities have labeled step two of Phase II.
Under the continued loosening of business restrictions, close-contact personal service establishments — such as nail salons, massage parlors, and body-piercing studios — were allowed to open their doors to customers for the first time since mid-March.
Unable to let grieving families in their facilities during the height of the COVID-19 crisis in the state — when at least 200 people were dying on a daily basis from the novel coronavirus — funeral homes were also finally given the okay to plan in-person wake and memorial services. However, for the time being, funeral directors are required to adhere to a 40 percent occupancy threshold.
Retail establishments may also let customers use dressing rooms for the first time, but only if appointments are booked in advance.
Under Phase I, both department stores and mom and pop retailers who don’t sell food, cleaning supplies, or building materials were allowed to begin serving customers under a curbside service model that began on May 25.
Six days later, under the start of Phase II, customers were invited back inside clothing and retail stores, but at a significantly reduced capacity. Lastly, office buildings and parks, allowed in May to partially reopen under Phase I, are as of this week allowed to occupy spaces at a 50 percent capacity.
Meanwhile, restaurants owners, some of whom have been able to serve customers in new outdoor seating areas over the past two weeks, are now able to serve meals indoors.
Though technically able to utilize exterior dining areas since June 1, many eateries, trying to secure permission to use private outdoor patios and parking lots or needing permission from cities and towns to use public spaces, have only just begun serving in-house meals again.
Still left shuttered across Massachusetts are the state’s taverns and bar rooms, gyms and fitness centers, theaters and sports complexes, and museums, aquariums, amusement parks, and adult learning centers.
Though some of those venues such as professional sports complexes and amusement parks are operated by deep-pocketed corporations, the start of Phase 3 still involves many small and medium-sized businesses, not to mention a myriad of non-profit organizations that oversee historical and cultural sites and art studios and performance halls.
Based upon Baker’s original commentary about his four-phased plan, first unveiled in mid-May, he will wait at least three weeks between the start of each phase before launching a new wave of openings. Based upon that timeline, Phase III will not begin until at least July 6, with a late July/early August start to Phase IV.
According to local officials, perhaps the biggest obstacle being faced by businesses is trying to understand the rules around the state’s complicated reopening plan.
For example, as Egan recalled, when Baker first allowed “non-essential” businesses to reopen, many area merchants were unsure of how to measure the required six-foot distance between tables, how to stripe one-way shopping aisles, what types of products were needed to be provided at new sanitation stations, and what to do about proposed worker temperature checks and other prevention measures.
There have also been legal questions about adhering to mandatory face covering rules — not the least of which revolve around business liability concerns should someone become sick — as well as questions about the formulation of required COVID-19 workplace safety and sanitation plans.
“People were asking if they had to track their customers. They were concerned. Would you want to sign your name [in a log] when going into a paper store?” Egan explained. “They also wanted to know what to do if someone was scared to return to work, and if taking people’s temperature and writing it down created a medical record [that needed to be safeguarded according to federal regulations].”
“There was just so much confusion,” she added. “There was misinformation all over the place. You really need someone to help you figure out the maze of information. That’s why I’m happy to chat with anyone.”
Besides turning to local Chambers of Commerce and business associations, local businesses have also found some allies in some surprising places.
For example, in Stoneham, Town Health Agent John Fralick III, who in a sometimes adversarial role finds himself citing some businesses for food handling violations, is now making it clear that his office is not looking to play the role of COVID-19 rule enforcer.
Though acknowledging during a meeting in May that he is obligated to investigate citizen complaints, the Board of Health and Stoneham Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan have made clear their top priority is helping businesses survive.
“We’re concerned about our businesses in town and want to make sure [we’re] doing what we can to help them reopen,” said Stoneham Town Administrator Dennis Sheehan, when Phase I of the reopening plan began last month. “The town is really not looking to do any kind of enforcement [beyond what’s mandated].”