Finally, the light at the end of the tunnel is not an oncoming train.
As restaurants and bars in Haverhill and the region weather the toughest conditions the pandemic has thrown at them, there is hope.
It comes in the form of millions of small, glass vials filled with coronavirus vaccine.
"I do see hopefully a light at the end of the tunnel," said John Ingalls, owner of Palmers restaurant in Andover. "When warmer weather arrives, hopefully this will be over."
Take-out business helps survival
Matt Gaiero, owner of G's Texas Southern Flare restaurant at 35 Washington St., Haverhill, said he employed 28 workers before the pandemic. Now, the restaurant — less than two years old — is down to six workers, he said, and sales are down 60% since the COVID-19 crisis started.
Gaiero, like most other restaurant owners in the area, took full advantage of outdoor dining options during the summer, which helped.
"In the summer with outside dining, we'd have good nights with good weather," he said. "If it was crappy out, we had no business."
Jason Petrou, whose family owns Krueger Flatbread restaurant, 142 Essex St., Haverhill, said outdoor dining helped the business survive.
He said all things considered, "We've had a pretty good year. This summer was really good with outdoor dining, and that continued into the fall."
Petrou's restaurant also does a brisk take-out and delivery business, which he thinks gives it an edge over other restaurants that don't have that ability.
"We do a lot of pizzas and calzones that lend themselves well to the to-go business," he said, noting that he's heard some pizza and sub shops are flourishing in the pandemic.
Because of that success, he hasn't had to lay anyone off.
Still, the pandemic hasn't been without its struggles, Petrou said, noting that some of his staff got infected, meaning he had to shut down for a while and work with the local Board of Health to reopen.
"We closed down, sanitized and worked closely with the city," he said. "I know other restaurants have had multiple cases."
The last few weeks, he said, have been bleak.
"When the (virus) surge started to come back, and the weather got cold, people didn't want to come inside," he said. "People are being safe, which is smart. They see on the news that you shouldn't eat indoors, but if you look at the COVID spread data, only a small fraction is from restaurants. Indoor dining is not a major cause for spread."
The important thing, restaurant owners say, is to be adaptable.
"Nimble is key," Petrou said. "The ones who are willing to adapt and change with the times right now, those are the ones who are going to make it."
Fight to stay open continues
Danielle Berdahn, owner of Yella Grille in Andover and Gloucester, said she hopes the vaccine is a turning point in the right direction.
"It's good the vaccine is becoming available," she said. "That's really something to look forward to. We are hoping this spring and summer will bring business back to normal."
In the meantime, however, the situation is dire.
As infections, hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise across the state and the nation, more and more people are staying home and out of restaurants and bars for fear of catching the virus.
The state has imposed severe measures limiting opening hours of restaurants and the number of patrons per table, as well as requiring masks for customers unless they are actually taking a bite of food or a sip of a drink. Many restaurants and bars have had to lay off workers or, as in the case of Palmers and several other area eateries, shut down for the winter — something owners refer to as "hibernation."
One estimate is that 110,000 restaurants in the United States have been shut down permanently since the start of the pandemic and many more are on the brink of collapse.
"Our business is significantly depleted," Berdahn said of her Yella Grille, noting that the holidays are usually a profitable time for her restaurant because of family outings and company parties.
"None of those are happening," she said, noting that the holiday season also usually brings shoppers to downtown — but not this year.
"People are doing a lot more online shopping," she said. "We usually see more foot traffic. ... And losing catering of parties is really tough. This is a very, very hard time to make it."
While Yella is staying open in Andover, Berdahn said she put her Gloucester location into hibernation.
Ingalls said he closed Palmers on Dec. 1.
"We shut the restaurant down and, when things get better, we will reopen in the spring," he said, adding that the hardest part was laying off staff, many of whom have worked at Palmers for years.
"They understand," he said. "They saw the writing on the wall."
As the pandemic raged, Ingalls pared his staff down from 35 to just nine employees. Now everyone is out on unemployment.
Berdahn said that in the case of Yella Grille, losing staff and sales means "constantly making adjustments, doing online ordering and delivery. We are doing family meals starting next week. We changed our menu to have more comfort food — hardy winter dishes that travel well."
"We are trying to do everything we can," she said. "I'm hopeful for the future. I hope everybody will come out and support us. We are lucky — in the past people have done that. We have been part of so many memories over the years. People are reaching out in kindness and saying how much Yella means to them. It really helps us."
Laura Wolfe, who owns four restaurants, including two in Newburyport and two in Wellesley, longs for the days before the COVID-19 crisis.
"We just want to get back to the magic of ordinary days," said Wolfe, whose two Newburyport restaurants are The Poynt, and Brick and Ash. "We want to not wear a mask, be able to hug our friends when we see them, say hello to friends at a bar. This pandemic has made me appreciate an ordinary day."
Wolfe said she had to put Brick and Ash into "hibernation" in October and will be closing The Poynt during January and February.
"Everybody is singing the blues," she said. "It's horrible right now. A lot of people are hanging on by a thread."