By James Gatlin
Over the past few months, fewer industries have faced more uncertainty than dining. As owners of restaurants in Massachusetts and the North End, in particular, adjust to adhere to social distancing guidelines, their jobs have changed. Although many businesses have reopened owners are not just welcoming customers back but trying to maintain a safe space for employees and customers.
While the set up in the iconic neighborhood looks different, employees have returned to their jobs that are not the same as just six months ago.
“The first few days make were overwhelming with all the health protocols we had to memorize. Although it was a lot after months of uncertainty, it is good to have my job back, “said Nick Valdario, a server at Quatro.
Restaurant employees are required to stay six feet apart whenever possible and wear masks at all times. The guidelines have added new responsibilities to the job, but workers are adapting after months of uncertainty. Upon returning to work, every employee is required to watch sanitation videos as protocols have changed. During the pandemic, some fields have shifted to fully remote; however, in the dining industry, that is not possible. As a result, the state has created guidelines to help cities and neighborhoods such as the North End operate safely and reduce the spread.
“Having to follow all the guidelines hasn’t made things easier, but it’s something we have to do. If we don’t, the state could have another spike, and then many people in the North End are out of a job again,” said Sebastian Mannion, a server at Massimino’s.
Although recent weeks have inspired hope, it has also served as a reminder for employees of how far the state has come. Only two months ago, about 90% of all restaurant workers furloughed or layed off, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. Additionally a quarter of Massachusetts restaurants are also expected to close for good with the possibility of a second wave.
During April, restaurants in Massachusetts lost more than $ 1.3 billion in sales. That number will grow as the summer continues due to a lack of tourism and colleges switching to online courses. Those factors will affect revenue and the job security of people across the state, including one of Boston’s most iconic neighborhoods. With restaurants now open, however, customers have started to return and make the best of the current situation.
“It’s definitely been a different environment. Seeing my server wearing a mask was weird but restaurant workers are going through a lot right now. No one is having a good time but I’m happy people in the North End were able to get back to work,” said Leah Kleiman who ate at Mother Anna’s on July 14.
Additionally, some restaurants are operating with limited staff or reduced hours due to capacity limits. Under governor Bakers, COVID-19 guidelines, restaurants are required to use stagger work schedules to spread outbreaks. Restaurants owners are also being asked to adjust workplace hours and shifts to minimize contact and congestion. In places such as the North End, it can be difficult due to how the neighborhood is set up.
However, following the guidelines will be essential for workers to keep their jobs. The Boston Licensing board already had to schedule an emergency meeting in late June after receiving numerous residents’ complaints. While no restaurants lost their licenses, the city will be doing random checks throughout the summer. If a restaurant does not follow guidelines, they risk losing their outdoor permit.
“It’s something no one wants to have happen, but they are not hard rules to follow. Everyone has had we are in this together mentality since we reopened and it’s helped make these guidelines a normal part of the workday, ” said Valdario.
“It was a ghost town here for a while, but people have started to come back. It feels good to see some of our regulars again,” said Arianne DeSouza, a server at Pauli’s.
While restaurant workers are at risk since they interact with customers daily, many precautions have been put in place. Any worker who has shown COVID-19 symptoms or been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 must be sent home, according to governor Bakers COVID-19 guidelines. Workers are also required to stay home if they are feeling ill.
“Having those precautions gives me some peace of mind whenever I show up to a shift. It makes me feel safe and that no one is taking any unnecessary risks,” said DeSouza.
Following the guidelines will be key for workers as the Boston Licensing board already had to schedule an emergency meeting in late June. While no restaurants lost their licenses, the city will be doing random checks throughout the summer. If a restaurant does not follow guidelines, they risk losing outdoor dining and being allowed to stay open.
“It’s something no one wants to have happen, but they are not hard rules to follow. Everyone has had we are in this together mentality since we reopened and it’s helped make these guidelines a normal part of the workday,” said Valdario.
However, for many workers, the changes go beyond the guidelines as for the first-time outdoor dining has been allowed in the North End. Sidewalks have turned into dining rooms, which workers now have to manage. The increased seating has brought in more customers, but outdoor also added a new element to jobs that employees never had to deal with before.
“Outdoor dining has made things different,” said Mike Simms,a waiter at Fiore. Closing at night does take longer and we have to sanitize the tables. It has brought in more customers but added a little more work than we are used to.”
Despite the improvement in business, employees are preparing for slower than normal summer. With colleges, still closed nights will quieter as the city continues to recover. The lack of activity will allow workers to adjust to the new guidelines that will be in place for the foreseeable future.
“Having it slower than usual has helped make the transition smoother. We are happy business is back, but it is a lot to learn at once,” said Simms.
If numbers continue to improve, however, capacity limits may increase. Despite the uncertainty, many servers and host staff have found some silver linings over the past few months.
“Although the expectations are different, it is still a job I love. We have all been through a lot the past months and it has brought us all closer,” said DeSouza.