NEWTON, MA — If you walked into Johnny's Luncheonette during lunchtime Tuesday, you would see a few tables of diners between plexiglass barriers, a waiter cleaning a table and no line. Across town at Dunn-Gaherin's Irish pub in Upper Falls after work, there's a tent in the back parking lot with heaters and a few diners.
Before the pandemic, tables at both restaurants would have been full.
As with hundreds of other businesses in Newton, the locally-owned restaurants have had to pivot amid the pandemic to stay open and keep customers and staff safe from the coronavirus. Both owners of the restaurants were waiting to see what restrictions the governor would place on them amid the second surge of coronavirus cases.
After praising the creativity and lengths to which restaurants have gone to keep safe for customers, the Baker administration on Tuesday announced several restrictions for restaurants, including limiting tables to six people and capping dining time at 90 minutes. Patrons will also no longer be allowed to remove their masks upon being seated but will have to wear them at all times unless eating or drinking, including during ordering.
"I was expecting worse," said Seana Dunn-Gaherin, who added she was pleasantly surprised.
Dunn-Gaherin and other Newton restaurant owners had been concerned the state would ask them to close dining rooms again, which would impact revenue and staffing again.
"I think he’s concerned about how much pressure he’s put on hospitality. He was very thoughtful in what he did today with the masking," she said. "The governor has leveled the playing field for us in terms of safety."
Although she understands the new restrictions, she said she worried people will be intimidated and stop coming to the restaurant. As it is, she said she expects to lay off staff weekly to get through the next six weeks.
"It's a pretty scary time," she said.
Johnny's owner Karen Masterson agrees. Her restaurant has also taken a hit and is bracing for the winter.
“As a small business this has been a horrific time, there’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Masterson said.
In the spring, she laid off most of the diner’s employees and worked with a skeleton crew. The federal Paycheck Protection Program was helpful but also problematic and slow at first, she said, and her landlord still won’t budge on rent.
“It’s devastating our bottom line,” she said. “We’re fortunate in that I think we have a big place so that we can distance people, and we have a loyal clientele. But our sales are greatly reduced, and the winter will be a further challenge because we’ve lost the outdoor dining options.”
In the meantime, she said she has gone to great lengths to ensure that customers, staff and her own family are safe and abiding by all the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations and guidelines.
She said she’s anxious to see if there will be another round of federal support and hopes that it will be targeted at smaller businesses.
As much as Masterson loves that her restaurant has come to be a regular haunt for many throughout the decades in Newton Centre, she also feels a responsibility as a keeper of a community space that offers something essential for mental health for isolated locals.
They include the older man who lives alone and shows up like clockwork. And the woman who shows up weekly and orders a salad and a Prosecco every time.
Masterson said a piece that has been lost in discussions about restrictions and safety is helping meet the needs of the people who depend on their regular restaurants for social interaction.
“We’re a place they can come and have some food and human contact and feel safe and seen, and that is just as essential as a meal,” she said. “We’re not advocating for anything other than a really, really safe, well-regulated experience. And if restaurants aren’t following those regulations, then certainly there should be consequences; but for those that are, they should be allowed to offer the service that many people who come in regularly. We are considered part of their family, and I don’t want to lose the opportunity to open our doors to them."
Both the owners of Johnny's and Dunn-Gaherin's said they understand the governor's rollback on restaurant restrictions and hope they don't scare people away.
"If you’re afraid to go out to a restaurant," Dunn-Gaherin said, "at least try to support us through takeout once a week."
Jenna Fisher is a news reporter for Patch. Got a tip? She can be reached at Jenna.Fisher@patch.com or by calling 617-942-0474. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram (@ReporterJenna). Have a something you'd like posted on the Patch? Here's how.