Facing the potential need to close because of the COVID pandemic, many businesses are looking to the state for additional support. Sen. Adam Hinds is announcing today that he has secured an additional $250,000 to fund grants for local small businesses. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission will administer the grant. According to Hinds, the following grant guidelines have been developed: $5,000 for businesses that employ five people or less $10,000 for 5-10 employees and $15,000 for 15 and above. Hinds also notes that there already exists a Community Development Block Grant program that BRPC is also managing that makes available up to $10,000 for five people or less.
“The earmark was made deliberately vague so we could be flexible based on need,” Hinds says. He adds that there will be a $100,000 carve-out for black-, Indigenous- and people of color-owned companies, and in this round of grants non-profits are eligible.
Eight months into the pandemic, Berkshire County is now seeing a rise in COVID cases, and has recorded 9 of its 11 highest days for new cases in the last 10 days. The statewide numbers look much the same.
On March 17, 2020, Gov. Charlie Baker took the bold step of closing down restaurants, schools and other businesses to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Although cases in the Berkshires were low throughout the spring and summer, state guidelines forced many businesses to close during that period, and the state subsequently issued clear guidelines for gradual re-openings.
Restaurants and food- related businesses are particularly sensitive to the need for caution, given the intimate connection between server and patron. Yet, except for requiring, effective Nov. 6, that restaurants close by 9:30 pm, the Baker administration has taken no other major action to address the increase in cases.
Instead, restaurant and food-related business owners seem to be taking the reins themselves and limiting hours, switching to all curbside or, in some cases, closing completely. In the last week, more than a dozen local restaurants have announced voluntary moves to all-take-out or even full closures. Additionally another 10 local restaurants have taken temporary closures after dealing with positive cases among patrons or staff.
Here are three examples of actions being taken by food service businesses.
Out of what he called an “abundance of caution,” Aurelien Telle, owner of Alta Restaurant & Wine Bar in Lenox, said he was closing the restaurant for the entire winter beginning November 22.
“It is the first time since our opening that we decided to shut down and it was a hard decision to make but we expect the pandemic to show growth as the cold weather settles,” Telle said.
He explained that the restaurant has had an extensive cleaning and safety protocol that has kept the staff safe and they have had no cases at the restaurant. Nevertheless, they feel the tide changing.
“As the cases increase, we are concerned that this alone [Alta’s cleaning plans] won’t be enough to keep everyone safe,” Telle said, adding that Alta plans to reopen in the spring.
The owners of Guido’s Fresh Marketplace learned earlier this month that two staff members at the Pittsfield store had tested positive for the virus, and they closed the store temporarily for a thorough cleaning and staff testing. This past week they announced that no more staff had tested positive, but they have continued to allow fewer shoppers into the store to facilitate increased social distancing. And they reminded customers to maintain extreme caution.
“We would also like to thank our employees and customers for their diligence in maintaining the safety in the stores through mask use and hand washing,” the store announced. “It’s been a rough week, but as we come out on the other side of it, it’s clear that these two practices have been truly effective.”
The Locker Room Sports Bar in Lee also has had to deal with a positive staff member. The restaurant closed for a week before reopening Nov. 20 for takeout only. The positive case was confirmed by James Wilusz, director of the Tri-Town Health Department. Tri-Town serves Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge. Wilusz said that Tri-Town does not plan to force restaurants to close but it has asked them to voluntarily take extra precautions.
“We have sent out correspondence to all the food establishments reminding them to double down on their efforts, ensure 100 percent masking and to continue to follow all COVID-related health rules,” Wilusz said. “We have also asked them to consider voluntarily reducing party size from 10 to six and really push reservations only.”
Wilusz added that while the government is not pushing any new rules, he had great respect for what local businesses had done and for the extra steps some are taking now.
“I want to commend all the restaurants that had been affected recently for really stepping up to respond to their COVID issues,” he said.