By Diti Kohli
No one goes in or out of Mystic Station now except owners Bryan and Nicole Palazzo. The couple closed their restaurant — widely known for its craft beer, burgers, and trivia nights — on March 14 when coronavirus thundered through the state. That means there’s no raucous groups circling the bar, no servers floating about, and most importantly, no revenue.
“There’s a lot of unknowns going around health-wise,” said Bryan Palazzo via phone. “We felt that, out of concern for the safety of our employees and our customers, closing entirely was the best idea.”
The people behind Mystic Station, like those from hundreds of Malden businesses, are counting down the days until they can welcome customers again. Some restaurants have continued takeout and delivery in self-isolation, while other businesses explore temporary virtual services in the hopes of holding out until the pandemic subsides. But scientists and government officials are unsure when it will be safe to reopen.
As of May 3, there are more than 68,000 recorded cases of coronavirus in Massachusetts, as well as more than 4,000 deaths. Governor Charlie Baker’s shelter-in-place order expires on May 18.
For now, owners and employees are left to sift through the financial ruin from a virus that has disrupted not only their lives, but also their livelihood.
Bryan Palazzo has remained positive — and resourceful through the crisis. Though the kitchen is closed, Mystic Station has continued to host virtual trivia nights every Wednesday. Generous players donate to the staff, all 27 of whom Palazzo had to lay off last month. “The server staff is hurting right now because this is a cash business,” said Palazzo. “So that helps them.”
The owners also supplied staff with a few rounds of groceries these last weeks — a rehearsal for contactless pickup when business starts up again.
When the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal forgivable loan program for small businesses, rolled out in early April, Palazzo was first in line at the bank. Most of that money helped with payroll, and a small subset was diverted to rent and expenses. “I knew there was only so much there and time is off the essence, so we got there early,” he said. “I actually brought a more updated application than the one the bank had.”
Not everyone was so fortunate with finding assistance.
Funds allotted for federal and state programs quickly dried up amid the pandemic, as millions of citizens in Malden and beyond faced hardship. Ashley Lissaint, founder of Core Cardio Fitness, applied for a bank loan, only to find out “they were out of money,” he said.
Lissaint offers online fitness classes via Zoom on strength training, kettlebells, endurance, and more today. But since he’s unable to pay his part-time staff as regularly as before, he operates fewer classes. He also reduced the gym’s membership price by 60 percent to reflect the difference between the in-person and virtual exercise experience.
“A lot of people we work with are first responders or now stuck in their homes,” said Lissaint. “We wanted to make sure people can stay on their routine.”
Local officials and advocates are tweaking resources of their own to help small businesses, like Core Cardio Fitness. Kevin Duffy, the city’s business development officer, updates a webpage of information for Malden citizens regularly. And the Malden Chamber of Commerce hosts semi-regular Zoom meetings sharing guidance with its 300 members.
The Malden Redevelopment Authority also devised a $10,000 grant program for microenterprises, ultra-small businesses run by low-income residents. Executive director Debby Burke said the $300,000 for the initiative comes from the nationwide coronavirus relief act, which granted more than $800,000 to the city. Applications will debut in mid-May (the exact date has not been set).
“We are looking to fill a gap left by the federal program a few weeks ago,” she said. “But we know this is nowhere close to meeting the need that’s out there.”
Assistance money is only a temporary lifeline for floundering businesses. The Small Business Association’s Economic Injury and Disaster Grant, for example, has kept El Potro Mexican Bar and Grill afloat, but for how long?
The franchise shuttered its Malden location, ended takeout orders, and furloughed its eight employees in mid-March. It’s quiet inside the once-bustling spot for now, and its owners have no concrete plans of when or how the kitchen will be turned on later.
“It’s silly to start coming up with specific plans because the government is going to tell us what we can and can’t do later,” said Joe Carreiro, El Portro’s business manager.
But this uncertainty hasn’t stopped other owners, who are piecing together their operations’ futures even while home-bound. The idea of returning to the outside world looms large in Lissiant’s thoughts. He plans to reevaluate the number of participants in his classes and instruct people to always bring in an alternate pair of gym shoes.
Palazzo, on the other hand, is thinking of selling hour-and-a-half long time slots at his restaurant. After each slot, the whole spot would be thoroughly cleaned for a half hour before welcoming the next rounds of guests.
When each spot opens depends on the kind of business it is, multiple sources confirmed.
“The Greater Boston Stage Company is very different from a nail salon,” said Burke. “The nail salon might be able to let in two people at a time in the beginning, but the Greater Boston Stage Company might have to wait a little longer.” The Massachusetts government does not have a timeline for the opening of larger venues, like concert halls and sports stadiums.
As the days at home slog on, officials and city workers urge residents to rely on their decision-making. Duffy said the city is constantly evaluating and planning for a new normal in the outside world that will eventually arrive.
“We are starting to compile possible ways to reopen once the surge passes,” he said. “There may not be a light at the end of the tunnel yet, but we are planning.”
Diti Kohli is a freelancer (and former intern) at MATV and a journalism student at Emerson College.