RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
About 1 in 5 restaurants in the U.S. has already gone out of business because of the pandemic. There are so many just trying to hang on. That includes Cornwall's Tavern in Boston. NPR's Tovia Smith reports on how the family-owned business is fighting to survive.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: 'Tis the season when Cornwall's would usually be booked back-to-back with Christmas parties and college students celebrating the holidays, but not this year, says Pam Beale, who owns Cornwall's with her husband, John.
PAM BEALE: We did decorate a little bit, put some wreaths out the front door so people would know we were open. But there's just not a lot of people around here and not a lot to celebrate at the moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: Christmas music plays for the lone customer in for lunch one day this week. Both Pam and John jump up when a second shows up.
JOHN BEALE: How's it going? Sit anywhere.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right.
SMITH: The business has taken one hit after another. After straining for months with just half their seating, no bar and a strict curfew, sales were hovering around half what they used to be. Last month, an even earlier curfew was imposed, and sales took a nosedive. Then, just last week, the state tightened rules even more.
P BEALE: It's like water torture. It's like, drop by drop by drop. How do you plan?
SMITH: The latest order limits tables to just six people who are supposed to be from the same household. Diners cannot stay longer than 90 minutes, and they have to keep their masks on even while they're seated, flipping them up and down with each sip or bite.
P BEALE: It's making it more awkward, more difficult, and people are sort of chafing against all the rules. But our fear is that there's more to come.
SMITH: Indeed, many health experts say the state has not gone far enough, and the only way to stop the spread of the virus indoors and curb the exponential growth in infections is to close indoor dining altogether. While Massachusetts restaurants are grateful to have dodged that bullet for now, many are deciding themselves to hibernate for the winter. Cornwall's started thinking about it last month as cases surged, college students left town and everyone else started hunkering down at home.
P BEALE: Everything is just sort of slipping away again, and you just hope that you'll be able to go on. But it's a constant worry.
J BEALE: Are you guys eating as well?
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.
SMITH: One of the biggest obstacles for restaurants is the curfew, which forces them to stop serving at 9:30. Now, even when people do show up, they can't stay.
BILLY MORAN: We are closing down. We have to. Would anybody like one last beverage?
SMITH: When a random Thursday night last month brought in a surprise flurry of students, Billy Moran, Pam's nephew and Cornwall's general manager and bartender, gives them one last call...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Two tequilas.
MORAN: Yeah, yeah. Sure.
SMITH: ...And then reluctantly starts pushing them out.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yes.
MORAN: We are closing.
Closing early is a killer because those are, by far, the biggest revenue hours.
SMITH: State officials defend the curfew as a delicate balance between public safety and the needs of small businesses, but critics say such half steps may be compromising both. Billy says it's brought Cornwall's to a breaking point.
MORAN: It's like, if you want to close us, just close us. But don't keep taking away more and more. It's like, 9:30 is - it's tough to make it work. You need that extra time.
RYAN BROWN: Yeah. I think that's what it is. It's, like, arbitrary.
SMITH: At a table near the back, Ryan Brown, a DJ, says crowded bars are one thing, but properly run indoor dining should not be the target. With all their rules, precautions and built-in supervision, restaurants may actually be among the safer places for people to gather, he says, and the early curfew may do more harm than good.
BROWN: I think in a way, it has some of the opposite effect of pushing people into house parties and whatnot, and that's the part that's been frustrating.
SMITH: Brown's friend, Clinton Terry, a restaurateur himself, agrees. He owns two places in Massachusetts and was supposed to open a third last summer. Instead, it's sitting empty.
CLINTON TERRY: Just worrying as to whether everything I've built, like, everything I've worked for my entire life, is it going to crumble? How do I employ my staff? And what do I tell them? Are we open? Are we not open? It's just terrible.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Thank you, Billy.
MORAN: Good to see you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Good to see you as well.
SMITH: The Cornwall's crew tries not to dwell on the doomsday scenarios, at least not out loud. They're focused on survival. But as Christmas approaches with infections still raging and the newest rules grinding down business even more, the family finally makes the hard call to temporarily close their doors this weekend during the worst of winter.
P BEALE: It's going to be pretty much of a wasteland, so it really doesn't pay to turn the lights, the heat, you know, on, to get food in to just have it go to waste while you have nobody to serve.
SMITH: Pam's hoping it's more of a nap than a hibernation, and she hopes it'll go more smoothly than when the state abruptly closed restaurants last March. This time, they're planning ahead, strategically spending down their food and beer to minimize waste so they'll be ready to reopen, she hopes, sometime in January.
P BEALE: I'm not a Pollyanna by any means, but fingers crossed that the new year brings, you know, new hope.
SMITH: It definitely won't be the first of the year, Pam says. The goalpost keeps moving, but she says Cornwall's will keep chasing it.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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