THE SITUATION at Bistro 5 in Medford didn’t look good in July. Owner Vittorio Ettore said he was getting just under 30 customers a week at the restaurant.
One Friday night, Ettore said, a city official dropped by, looked around the empty restaurant, and told him he should expand to patio seating. Ettore was wary because of the busy street outside, but five days later, with a city permit in hand, he decided to give it a try. Now he’s averaging 30 to 40 customers per day, and he believes the high visibility of the outdoor eating environment is convincing diners that it is safe to come in.
“It’s changed the business completely,” he said.
Part of what made that possible is the streamlining of municipal permitting that has allowed retailers and restaurants to use public spaces to set up tables and provide socially distanced dining. A second program, the Shared Streets and Spaces program, has provided financial assistance to restaurants for getting physical barriers to separate their customers from streets.
At a press conference on Thursday at Bistro 5, Gov. Charlie Baker announced he’s signing off on a pair of executive orders that will extend and expand both efforts. Baker said one order will extend the time-frame for municipal permitting for expanded outdoor dining and provide $5 million more for the Shared Streets and Spaces program.
Baker has said in the past that he rarely ventures out, but on Thursday he said he and his wife Lauren ate outdoors in Salem on Saturday, and ended up eating indoors at a Marblehead restaurant on Sunday after there was no room outside. “We took a look around and first, there was plenty of separation, and second there was plexiglass everywhere,” Baker said. “We said ‘OK!”’
The Shared Streets and Spaces program is funded with money from the state Department of Transportation and federal CARES Act funding. The new $5 million doubles the size of the program. So far, $7.7 million has been allotted to 91 projects, everything from jersey barriers for outdoor dining to expanded bike paths and sidewalks to crossing signal near schools. The effort, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said, is also intended to give parents and students the option of walking to school instead of taking traditional modes of transit like busses, where it may be hard to socially distance.
Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn said the city has been approved for four shared streets grants, including for expanded bus and bike lanes. Lungo-Koehn said the program has increased outdoor dining options that she would like to become “a permanent fixture” in Medford.
Baker said the program will also assist restaurants in preparing for colder weather, perhaps with funding for heat lamps to keep outdoor dining going longer. Ettore said he is looking into heat lamps now.
Baker also said that he is signing an executive order to allow indoor and outdoor arcades to resume operations as soon as next week. The order comes as he faces multiple lawsuits from arcade owners, including one in Salem, who allege they should not have to wait until Phase 4 to reopen when slot machines at casinos are already in use.
Baker said he decided to open arcades because of the experience of arcades in nearby states. He said the arcades opening didn’t mean that bars and nightclubs will be opening anytime soon.
“Bars and nightclubs are responsible for a huge piece of the outbreaks that took place in the South and Midwest.” he said. “We continue to worry about the impact they would have on the success we’ve had to date. “
Baker was asked his opinion of a book released by journalist Bob Woodward that reports President Trump was privately acknowledging the deadly nature of the coronavirus even as he was publicly comparing it to the seasonal flu.
“I have not been shy about my dismay with the federal response to this pandemic,” Baker said. “We’ve also tried to be pretty consistent in our messaging around this. It’s dangerous, for many people it’s deadly dangerous, and it is profoundly contagious. And it is the contagion that makes it dangerous for everybody.”
“I think the federal government overall on this, especially for state leaders and other health care providers playing this game on the ground, has made it harder for all of us,” Baker added.
Asked if the president should resign, the governor said: “There’s an election coming up. That’s when people make decisions about stuff like this.”