Western Mass. Restaurants Grapple With Staying Open, Impending Cold

Sep 15, 2020

Some chambers of commerce across western Massachusetts said they've seen some restaurant closures due to the pandemic. And there's concern about what fall and winter might bring.

There are no hard-and-fast numbers on it, but some restaurants have closed permanently — or on a temporary basis — in Berkshire County during the pandemic.

That's according to Jonathan Butler, the president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the area's economic development agency.

"Anecdotally, we've seen a couple in just about every community who have made the decision to close for the season, or kind of hibernate, we're calling it," Butler said. "Or a couple who have actually said, 'We think we're all done.'"

Butler said many restaurants that offer outdoor dining are benefitting from the cooperative weather in the spring and fall, which also bolsters their takeout operations. He said there could be trouble ahead with colder weather looming. 

"As things cool down, as outdoor dining goes away, some of these tight margins that many of these businesses are getting by with are going to get even tighter," he said. "We worry that we might see a lot of businesses having to make difficult decisions in the late fall and early part of the winter."

Butler said Berkshire restaurants have gotten creative by expanding outdoor dining and takeout services.

In Northampton, Vince Jackson, the executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said he's seen that same type of creativity from restaurateurs.

Jackson said a few restaurants have closed and some have paused operations. But he said there are also a couple of new ones that opened during the pandemic — a development he calls "exceptionally notable."

One blow to area dining establishments, Jackson said, is having far fewer college students around. Many schools opened campuses on a limited basis, if at all.

"We're a college town, so there's been a lack of students returning to the area," he said. "And with that, we haven't had a lot of visitors — parents who bring students back. So that is a major concern."

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, said she hadn't heard of any restaurants closing due to the pandemic. But a few did close their doors, she said, because longtime owners were planning to retire.

Creed said many are trying to find ways to keep outdoor dining going into the colder months.

"People are reconfiguring alley ways so that you're actually blocking the wind, which will help," she said. "They're looking at purchasing fire pits and outdoor heaters, and those kinds of things, to keep folks warm and cozy."

Creed said there are even some restaurants looking to purchase portable heated igloos, or possibly building small solar greenhouses to seat a few people at a time, and stay up and running. 

Creed also said she's encouraging restaurant owners to work with their local governments to tap state grant funding for outdoor projects.

Last week, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced funding for the "Shared Streets" program was being doubled from $5 to $10 million