Business: Restaurants Organize To Support Insurance Legislation
By: Debra Lawless
A local restaurateur is looking to marshal forces to advocate for a bill that would help restaurants survive the pandemic.
Massachusetts Senate Bill 2655, stalled since April, requires insurance companies to pay out business interruption insurance even during a pandemic. The issue goes back to the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. A clause added at that time excludes insurance companies from paying out on interruptions caused by viruses and bacteria.
“We’re trying to get enough business owners together so we can go before the state senate and really try to push this bill through,” says Jeffrey Michael Mitchell, 30, who co-owns and runs the Talkative Pig in South Chatham, with his parents and sister Amanda. “This is important — these businesses need this help.”
Mitchell has teamed up with the non-profit THIRST Group. (THIRST stands for The Hospitality Industry Re-imagined Security Trust.) THIRST is a “citizen legislative advocacy group of independent owners,” according to its website. “We work to keep independent restaurants and hospitality alive, by advocating that our elected officials ensure insurance carriers provide the protection you paid for.”
The all-volunteer group was started in April by attorney Nate Whitehouse, managing member of Drifter Spirits in New York. The hospitality industry employs 18 million people who do an annual $1 trillion worth of business. Yet due to the pandemic, “many small businesses, important to their districts and real, classic small job creators, face dire times due to the government shutdown and the health risks we are exposed to.” THIRST now has citizen advocates in 14 states and the District of Columbia.
One workaround might be this: What if the harm comes from “civil disruption” rather than a virus? Namely, governmental mandates to distance people by six feet, to wear masks and require patrons to reserve seats at restaurants constitute “civil disruptions.” Interruption insurance generally pays out on civil disruptions — and this would override the pandemic clause.
As we all know, the coronavirus pandemic led to a strange summer on Cape Cod. Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10; a shutdown of all but essential businesses followed. Businesses eventually reopened in stages but bars have remained one of the more controversial areas as they generally feature people sitting in close proximity, without masks — taboo during the airborne pandemic.
For the Talkative Pig, the summer was “one of our slower summers in recent memory,” Mitchell says. “It’s been a transition. Definitely strange.”
The problems began in March when J-1 visa holders were unable to travel to the U.S., depriving the restaurant of 12 workers. “That really hurt our staffing,” Mitchell notes. Then, because the restaurant had no suitable spot for outdoor dining, it had to reconfigure the dining room to lower its capacity. The bar was closed — “a big loss,” Mitchell says.
Exacerbating local restaurants’ troubles were the food service workers who tested positive for the virus during the summer. In July, a 13-case cluster came from a party in Chatham. Like several other local restaurants, the Talkative Pig closed temporarily for a five-day deep cleaning and disinfecting on July 22 after one of the “back of the house employees” tested positive for COVID-19, according to its Facebook page. The dining room closed again on Aug. 8 when many staff members returned to college. On Aug. 11 the restaurant segued to take-out food only, which it plans to continue through the fall. The restaurant currently offers take-out five nights a week, including craft cocktails served in mason jars available with food orders.
Massachusetts Senate Bill 2655 would require insurance to cover the insured “for any loss of business or business interruption” from March 10 — the day the governor declared the state of emergency — until the executive order is rescinded by the governor. It would not allow an insurer to deny a claim “on account of (i) COVID-19 being a virus (even if the relevant insurance policy excludes losses resulting from viruses).”
The bill applies only to policies issued to businesses with 150 or fewer full-time-equivalent employees.
Mitchell’s parents, Jeffrey and Terri Mitchell, bought the restaurant formerly known as the Box Office Café early in 2015. The restaurant, whose menu boasts a Mediterranean flair, opened in April 2015. Mitchell came on board tending bar. “It was a chance to get out and apply the things I learned,” he says.
For the past month, Mitchell has been visiting restaurant owners and dropping off flyers to raise awareness.
“We want as many to know about this as possible,” he says. Once he has collected sufficient signatures — at least 50 — he and Chris Almeida, owner of the Tasty in Plymouth, will go to the statehouse. One of Mitchell’s challenges this summer has been that many restaurant owners have been working as line chefs or bartenders in their own small, understaffed businesses, and they have had little time to talk. He hopes the situation may improve now that Labor Day has passed.
“It’s hard, because I’m only one person and Cape Cod is large,” Mitchell says.
To find out more about THIRST, visit thirstgroup.org or contact Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org.