By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) — Roger Berkowitz, CEO of the iconic Legal Seafood restaurants, didn’t want to sell his 52-year-old business. “I’m gonna miss [the] social interaction,” he said. But nine months of government-mandated shutdowns and restrictions have forced his hand and, across the local restaurant industry, sparked an emotional debate over whether they’re even necessary.

“I think we’re being unfairly punished,” said Chris Coombs of Boston Urban Hospitality, a complaint seconded by big-name local restaurateurs like Steve DiFillippo of Davio’s.

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Their claim: the state’s own data proves their case.

“We’ve only produced four-tenths of one percent of all of the COVID cases in the month of November,” said Coombs.

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But Berkowitz said he comes down “on the side of caution” in the wake of studies like a recent CDC analysis of data from eleven hospitals that found patients testing positive were “twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant” than were those testing negative.

“If you are in the business of protecting the public…as we are through our restaurants, then you can’t really argue with it,” said Berkowitz. “So I couldn’t take a stand and say ‘you were doing the wrong thing by closing us down.’”

Berkowitz acknowledges the unfairness of how pandemic restrictions are decimating large swaths of the hospitality economy. But when asked if he’d take his own family out for an indoor bite right now, he acknowledges: “I would be hesitant.”

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So many details of this terrible plague are uncertain, and the lack of definitive contact tracing leaves the data vulnerable to debate, spin, and backlash. But one aspect of our COVID-19 nightmare seems clear – businesses that rely on people gathering together need to brace themselves for even more damage to their business models.

Jon Keller