Baker administration launches $2 million campaign to promote restaurant industry

State officials are launching a $1.9 million advertising campaign to encourage consumers to eat at their local restaurants, timed to coincide with the outdoor dining season and the lifting of occupancy restrictions related to the pandemic this weekend.

The campaign, dubbed “Let’s Go Out,” kicked off Thursday and will run through September across the state. It will feature digital billboards, radio spots, TV commercials on NESN and billboards in Fenway Park. Local ad agency ThinkArgus is handling the creative side, a continuation of its work on the state’s “My Local MA” campaign that began last year.

Mike Kennealy, economic development secretary in the Baker administration, said restaurants will play a key role in revitalizing downtowns and villages.

“It will be very important for us to continue to invest in our main streets and our town centers,” Kennealy said. “That’s another way to do it.”

The money was originally set aside in 2019 from taxes collected from state casinos. House of Representatives leaders had been pushing for funding after a spate of major restaurant closings. An ad hoc commission was created to determine how best to use the money to support the industry; this commission was about to embark on an advertising campaign when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. The commission banded together to take on the new challenge and ultimately decided on a suitable advertising campaign to help reopen the hospitality industry.

The campaign is one of many ways state officials are trying to help the beleaguered industry. Gov. Charlie Baker introduced a bill this week that would extend simplified rules for setting up outdoor dining areas until the end of November. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association is pushing lawmakers to expand the “to-go cocktails” option and cap third-party meal delivery commissions under the legislation, which is intended to meet pandemic-era rules set to expire. either when Baker’s state of emergency ends on June 15 or 60 days later.

Kennealy also noted that the restaurant industry has already received about a third of the $700 million in small business relief grants distributed by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. over the past six months. And many local restaurants have applied for assistance through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a $28.6 billion federal recovery fund overseen by the US Small Business Administration.

Few industries have been hit harder by the pandemic. The sector employed nearly 262,000 people in Massachusetts in February 2020. That fell by more than half in April last year, when restaurants were closed except for takeout and delivery. Employment has risen and fallen again throughout the stages of the pandemic, with many establishments going into hibernation mode over the past winter. In April, employment stood at 202,000, at least 60,000 jobs below pre-pandemic levels.

Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said about 3,400 of the state’s roughly 16,000 restaurants have not reopened — however, some of those locations are occupied by new restaurants. On the plus side, of the roughly 500 restaurants that have gone into hibernation, Luz doesn’t know of any that haven’t reopened or aren’t about to. Today, the industry shares the challenge that many sectors face: finding enough people to fill vacancies.

“People need to realize that we are just putting our feet on the ground,” Luz said. “We’re going to look busy here, but it’s busy after 14 months of extremely low sales.”

Jon Chesto can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.

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Cecil N. Messick