While Mayor Michelle Wu opting to extend the outdoor dining through the month of December undoubtedly gave the city’s restaurants a much-needed boost amid the still-ongoing pandemic, one accomplished restauranteur also sees it as a promising sign for the future of al fresco dining in the City of Boston.
“Mayor Wu’s decision to extend outdoor dining through the month of December was great,” said Babak Bina who along with his sister, Azita Bina-Seibel, owns and operates Bin 26 on Charles Street, as well as jm Curley and its steakhouse, Bogie’s Place, in Downtown Crossing. “Having spoken with some people on her administration, she appears to understand the gravity of the situation. I’ve been told she’s been in communication with the Governor on extending outdoor dining hopefully beyond the expiration that will occur in the spring, which would be a life-saver as we are still clearly in the middle of a pandemic and not out of the woods yet.”
Even so, this additional month of outdoor dining didn’t necessarily translate into much more business for many restaurants, said Bina, including his own.
“Obviously, Boston and New England weather has historically not been that kind,” he said. “But we had a very mild December, and with heaters ready, we had the occasional diner outside. It garnered attention and gave people a choice to dine inside or out, but revenue-wise, it wasn’t earth shattering.”
Bina also knows from personal experience that getting vaccinated doesn’t completely ensure you won’t get infected, since about a dozen employees at Bin 26 on Charles Street and just as many more at jm Curley, tested positive for COVID after Christmas, and this came despite the fact that all his employees had been vaccinated.
As has historically been the case, Bin 26 and jm Curley were both closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and when employees returned to work this time, Bina had 150 rapid test kits on hand to administer to them.
“There were people who had already reported positive, or had symptoms, and a couple who tested positive during testing were sent home,” said Bina. “We obviously followed CDC recommendations in them quarantining, and in fact, we had them tested before returning to work. Regardless, they continue to wear masks at all times, and we also have air purifiers functioning [at our restaurants].”
Bina was also put further at ease upon learning that all of the employees had contracted COVID from interacting with family and friends, rather than from working at either of his restaurants.
“The good news is that in all cases, except one, they have been able to bounce back quickly, with no symptoms showing after a couple of days,” he said. “No one ended up in the hospital, thank goodness.”
And as someone who has worked countless hours working at Bin 26 and jm Curley since the pandemic struck while still remaining COVID-free, Bina believes that restaurants inherently continue to be safe places, especially if one takes the proper safety precautions.
“Personally, I have been near people who have tested positive, and I was wearing a mask, and I have continued to not test positive,” said Bina. “I attribute that to wearing a N95 mask any time I’m in a highly populated area.”
Supply shortages and rising costs, meanwhile, continue to stymie restaurants around Boston and beyond.
“We’re seeing a 25-30 percent increase in prices across the board,” said Bina. “It’s not just one vendor, it’s not two vendors – it’s everyone across the board. I’m sure in some cases, it’s supply-chain issues, but frankly, it’s also labor costs and shortages.”
Added Bina, “We’re addressing that currently, and we feel that the biggest impact and relief will be the ability to have outdoor dining in the spring.”
If not, Bina said he fears “it would certainly kill restaurants, and you’ll definitely see increases in menu prices at your favorite restaurants.”
And like everyone else, Bina is holding out hope that the worst days of the pandemic have already passed.
“Our hope is that this is the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” he said, “and that with the new variants seeming to be more like a flu than being so deadly, at least for those who are vaccinated, we will get to the other side sooner than later.”
Likewise, Bina believes that his restaurants are now in a better position than they were at the onset of either of the two previous years.
“We’re extremely hopeful about this year, much more than the previous two years, possibly because we assume we have experienced the worst,” said Bina, “and most importantly, we’re confident that our loyal staff and patrons will carry us through this.”