City Hall’s message to small businesses: ‘If you’re not ready, don’t re-open’

A view of a webinar hosted by the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, Greater Ashmont Main Street and Fields Corner Main Streets on Wednesday morning.

“Take your time.”

That was key message from City Hall officials during a webinar held this morning for small business owners.

“We want to be really clear: Until you are prepared to open, you should not be opening,” said Natalia Urtubey, director of Small Business for the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, which co-hosted the online discussion with Greater Ashmont Main Street and Fields Corner Main Streets. The Zoom meeting briefed merchants on safety protocols for the city’s phased reopening plan.

“I know that the state's reopening plan has come out and has caused some stress, confusion and fear,” added Urtubey. “One of the key things that the Mayor has been really clear about is that just because we’re reopening doesn’t mean you have to. Just because the state is reopening an industry doesn’t mean the city will.”

Urtubey added: “We want to make sure you understand what you’re required to do and the steps you can take to ensure safety and trust is being built in your community.”

Tom McDonough, Neighborhood Business Manager for the city’s Office of Business Development, reviewed four different mandatory safety standards for workplaces planning to reopen that were outlined by the mayor’s office. These include social distancing, staff hygiene, a plan for staffing and operations, and cleaning and disinfecting standards.

“Basically, they’re going to have to clean and clean after doing tasks,” said McDonough. “Employees need to pay attention to social distancing and anyone who displays any kind of COVID-19-like symptoms should not report to work.”

The mayor’s office is coordinating the new policy with agencies like the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) and Inspectional Services Department (ISD), and the Licensing Board.

“We’ve been working really hard on establishing guidelines and figuring out ways to make it easier for you to reopen,” said Urtubey. “Also the Boston Main Streets organizations also work closely with the city to make sure that you have access to the resources available.”

The city designated a food takeout priority zone at the beginning of the statewide shutdown to facilitate take-out and delivery services, mainly for the restaurant industry. This could be expanded to other types of businesses, Urtubey said.

“The Licensing Board has extended a form to submit requests to apply for temporary extensions to outdoor space, to extend the premise of restaurants and cafes so you can use either public or private space outside,” she added. “This is a really great tool that I think will help us increase capacity for restaurants in particular.”

BTD is also exploring ways to temporarily expand sidewalks and bike lanes to create more space.

“We’re looking into making some temporary changes in the streets, both for bike lanes, extending curbs and creating more space for people,” said Matt Warfield, new mobility planner at BTD. “We’re also still taking requests for take-out zones and additional restaurant space on the licensing board website.”

Warfiled added: “One thing to keep in mind with all of these requests is that there’s only so much space at the curb, so there's a tradeoff. Parking will be reduced in many areas to help make space for these methods.”

Urtubey and Warfiled urged the directors of the Main Streets organizations to identify areas where there are large stretches of businesses when they receive requests, so that the city might consider extending lengths of parking in those areas.

“If Main Streets put in specific requests, it makes it easier for us to plan because we know what the requests are,” said Warfield. “The more info you can give us and the more requests we get easier it is for us to implement.”

Jenn Cartee, executive director of Greater Ashmont Main Streets shared concerns over spatial “tightness,” especially as more businesses reopen.
“I think with the introduction of retail to the mix we’re going to see more tightness in that regard. I don’t know what the uptick in need for curbside space will be, but if anyone has any questions or issues with the process please reach out to me,” said Cartee.

“Specifically, we’re supporting the request made by Ashmont Grill to have temporary utilization of the open plaza in front of it. They look to return with an entirely outdoor model,” she added. “We have had success with the curbside pickups for food businesses that have been open for takeout, including Tavolo and American Provisions.”

Cartee also wanted to emphasize that unemployment benefits would not be affected by reopening.

“This is a question that I’ve gotten from several of my businesses,” said Cartee. “The pandemic unemployment benefits are not affected by the change and the ability for folks to reopen,” she said. “Just because you can reopen, we’re not saying you have to or that you’ll lose assistance or other relief you’ve secured. It’s super important that people take this safely and at their own pace.”

Jackey West Devine, director of Fields Corner Main Streets, said that the organization is considering reclaiming the old Gallagher Insurance lot and converting parking spaces to make space for business opportunities.

“I’ll be talking to residents and business owners about opportunities we’d like to see in that space, like exercise class or business events. Please be in touch if you have an idea,” she said.

The city’s Office of Economic Development will continue hosting small business webinars in multiple languages over the next few days.

“Just because your business might fall under phase 3 of the reopening schedule, doesn’t mean that you can’t start preparing now,” said Urtubey. “It’s really important that you know which phase you’re in so that you can prepare.”

She also encourages small businesses to rely on the support of their Main Streets organizations.

“If you do not yet have a relationship with your Main Streets, I encourage you to reach out to these amazing women we have as panelists,” said Urtubey.