Working behind the scenes in Somerville

Boston Burger Company letting customers know they are ready for them. Photo Credits: Alberto Gilman
Takeout and pickup windows slowly make way for the return of indoor and outdoor dining. Photo Credit: Alberto Gilman

By Alberto Gilman 

Somerville restaurants move forward with reopening yet still fear a resurgence with the rising case numbers across the country. 

“Is there a sense of apprehension, absolutely. Our businesses are and are eager to appear ready to serve their customers,” said Jessica Eshleman, executive director of Union Square Main Streets in Somerville.  “How do we reopen in a way that keeps servers, bartenders, people who’re again at the frontlines of customer service safe and comfortable in our new norm?” 

With Somerville restaurants planning to reopen in June following other reopening procedures across the state of Massachusetts, people will be going out, sitting outside, dining inside, and enjoying the freedom from their homes. The preparation for a resurgence is already put into place according to Mayor of Somerville Joseph Curtatone. 

“We know we’re going to get a resurgence. We are very vulnerable as human beings,” Curtatone said. “This pandemic is showing that it knows no boundaries. If you are not prepared it will overwhelm you.”

Restaurants already have various safety protocols in place. Yet the possibility to close again and enter into a second wave makes the management of the businesses more uncertain and difficult in the coming weeks. 

According to Somerville’s COVID-19 website, the city has already entered into the first and second phases of reopening, where restaurants were allowed indoor dining with safety measures, outdoor dining, takeout and delivery for their customers. Now into July, phases three and four, bars and other businesses previously closed are reopening

Timeline data for local restaurants in Somerville as reopening phases come closer and closer. Chart Credit: Alberto Gilman

As the first occurrences of the pandemic brought on new challenges and adaptations for Somerville, Curtatone said he needed to balance public health and the city’s economy.

“It’s hard,” Curtatone said. “As an elected official, you want to help. You just want to make sure you left no stone unturned, you done everything you could.”

For the past several months, his office has been helping wherever possible through various actions: 

  • Creating loan programs for businesses, such as restaurants, who may need the funds and support
  •  helping establish social distancing parameters for residents to help keep one another safe 
  • being in contact with community and state leaders on their next plans of action 

Curtatone calls himself a foodie and loves going out to eat and order from restaurants. He said seeing the various businesses and owners from a diverse community speaks to the diversity of the city as a whole and the support that so many people have for each other. 

In Union Square, the Union Square Main Streets organization provides assistance and is responsible for promoting the organization through advocation, collaboration, and connection with other owners and partners.

With the pandemic, the office helps in a variety of ways to keep the businesses informed: 

  • creating and distributing to customers, partners and new subscribers Union Square newsletters 
  • sending out quality surveys for the businesses to see how Union Square is doing in their assistance 
  • updating websites and online links with a variety of COVID-19 related resources 
  • contacting state and local elected officials for advocacy assistance
  • utilizing social media in getting the message out to the public. 

Eshleman said she works with many business owners who have come from all over the world. Many immigrant residents here in Somerville have established their own American dream and their businesses stay within the family. Eshleman said the people working in these businesses do not see it as a job, but as a passion. 

 “Today, I would say that’s primarily reflected in the dining scene here,” Eshleman said. “Our dining at Union Square in particular is known for its incredible eateries, many of which are award winning.” 

If you want to find the soul and spirit of a neighborhood or community, all you have to do is walk down the sidewalks in town, claims Eshleman. However, losing these local restaurants would be detrimental to the community, said Eshleman. Restaurants bring significant revenue and are a community staple. Seeing them overcome or struggling during this crisis is important to the local leaders who oversee the community. 

“If a small business closes, especially one that’s been in the district or in a neighborhood for a long time, the neighborhood mourns the loss,” Eshleman said.  “It’s so much more than just a business for making money. It’s a place for the community to convene and really come together.” 

Boston Burger Company lets customers know they are ready for them to order and enjoy their food. Photo Credit: Alberto Gilman

For small restaurants, the lack of revenue that comes from indoor dining is going to create difficulties for recovery at the economic level.

Director of Economic Development Thomas Galligani recognizes the economic difficulties these restaurants are facing. 

“Some of these restaurants are open for just pick up and drop off and delivery and that typically allows them maybe 10 or 20 percent of the revenue that they once had,” said Galligani. “Opening up for outdoor dining with significant social distancing parameters in place that still  might be able to get them maybe another 40 percent of their revenue and then opening up indoors maybe another 20 to 40 percent.”

Galligani said his office acts as a conduit of communication to the local business community. He and his other colleagues all work to find new creative ways to distribute information about the virus in the beginning. Several Somerville residents are non-English speakers so Galligani oversaw creating newsletters and holding meetings for all the various language speakers in the community. He has also been made aware of loan programs announced by the mayor’s office, helping in other economic ventures. 

The lack of revenue as a result of the pandemic creates more uncertainty and getting back on track is going to be a challenge Galligani said.  

“This is probably the greatest challenge that our businesses, certainly our restaurants have dealt with since they’ve been in business,” Galligani said.

Somerville continues to track the current case numbers and update residents on any data that may be necessary going forward. Kristen Stelljes serves as the director of SomerStat. Now as the Planning Chief for the Coronavirus Emergency Response Team, her team has been helping Somerville get back on track through data gathering done by her team helps with decision making, community needs, and tracking the impact of their work.

In the early days of the pandemic, it seemed unknown to anyone what the outcome would be, Stelljes said. 

“At the beginning was quite overwhelming. Many of us in this city do not have an emergency management background or training,” said Stelljes. 

Over the course of the last few months, Stelljes and her team continue to provide data and information to residents and work with other municipalities to help figure out the best course of action.

“We were building the ship while we were sailing in a hurricane,” said Stelljes. “I think where I feel pride is not necessarily in my own individual contributions but just to be part of this team of amazing people who since March have been working 12/16 hours a day.”

Data tracking COVID-19 cases numbers and recovery numbers in Somerville can be found here.

As a fairly small city, limited staff work to the best of their ability. In the end, it’s just people helping people and that is how Somerville businesses will survive in this pandemic.

“So many of the people in the community have stepped up and said how can I help my neighbor,” Curtatone said.

About Alberto Gilman 4 Articles
Originally from the Hudson Valley in New York, Alberto Gilman moved to the city of Boston following his undergraduate completion to pursue a masters in Journalism at Emerson College. While attending and going through course work, the growth in writing, reporting and editing have developed an efficient reporter following degree completion. Serving in a variety of student journalist organizations for the past several years, interests of news topics include sports, local news and human interest.

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