Boosters aim to shore up downtown dining in Amherst

  • Robert Mora, right, who is the building commissioner for Amherst, directs the placement of tables as Gabrielle Gould, the executive director of Amherst BID, holds a measuring tape as they prepare for outdoor dining, Friday, June 26, 2020 on North Pleasant Street. Tenzin Soepa, of MoMo Tibetan Restaurant, looks on.

Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2020

AMHERST — Even with strategies aimed at supporting the numerous restaurants in downtown Amherst, from creating new spaces for outdoor dining and making takeout and curbside pickup more convenient, business has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Now that autumn has arrived and with it the likelihood of cold weather, the Amherst Business Improvement District is working with town leaders to develop a plan to sustain restaurants hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

BID Executive Director Gabrielle Gould said last week that decisions are being made amid state restrictions on indoor capacities and with restaurant patronage significantly reduced.

“It’s had a huge toll on the community as a whole,” Gould said of decisions aimed at keeping the community safe and reducing the spread of infection. “Restaurants with liquor licenses are not even getting close to 50% of their previous sales.”

To counter this, the Amherst BID is looking forward to the town getting a Massachusetts Department of Transportation Shared Streets and Spaces grant that will pay to reorganize the current setup and allow the outdoor dining season to be extended. Unlike in Northampton, where the money was used to make significant changes to the streetscape, Gould said Amherst will make modest changes focused on what can be done to help sustain restaurants into December.

Gould said she appreciates that the town has committed a portion of this anticipated grant to buying 20 outdoor heaters, at a cost of about $2,000 each and approved by the fire department.

The Amherst BID intends to buy 30 more and provide up to four heaters for each restaurant offering outdoor dining.

Town Manger Paul Boclelman said this setup should be seen as not only viable for this fall, but for next spring, too.

The BID is also working with the town for help with liquor licenses, which range in price from $1,200 to $4,400. Gould said a delay on paying these fees until June 2021 could be a “game changer” in terms of business survival.

Bockelman said the town is examining both license fee relief and possibly postponing due dates for paying them.

For Gould, the other major challenge is the perception by students who don’t feel comfortable patronizing businesses because they have been blamed for an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Gould said it is often older adults she sees not abiding by social distancing rules.

“The students have been exemplary in wearing masks and face coverings and practicing social distancing while in downtown,” Gould said.