Announcing details of the highly anticipated second phase of the state’s reopening, Governor Charlie Baker said Friday that restaurant dining could soon return to Massachusetts — with one significant caveat.
At least for the foreseeable future, restaurants will be limited to outdoor service only.
In a list of guidelines that figure to significantly reshape the dining experience in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Baker didn’t specify exactly when restaurants can begin service within Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, but it could be as early as June 8, should the state avoid any spikes in COVID-19 cases or other health metrics.
Speaking during his daily briefing, Baker said officials will monitor key statistics — including hospitalizations, new infections and fatalities — between June 1 and June 6, before announcing on June 6 when Phase Two can officially begin.
Indoor dining would follow later in Phase Two, though it’s unclear when.
On a day the state announced 617 new coronavirus cases and 78 new deaths, Baker cautioned Friday that “we need to keep trending in that [downward] direction to move forward to the next phase; we really can’t take one step forward and two steps back.”
The announcement of the Phase Two plan came as the state continued to grapple with the ripple effects of the virus in nearly every facet of daily life.
Baker also announced Friday that he would be signing an executive order on Monday that will allow the state’s professional sports teams to resume practice, even as leagues continue to devise plans on how to proceed. Celtics officials said the team plans to reopen its training facility on Monday, with some limitations.
But even as the key public health metrics that state officials are watching continued their encouraging trends and attention turns to reopening, signs of the pandemic’s long tail continued to emerge. Officials in Brookline announced the layoff of an untold number of school district employees, including teachers, a move the town attributed to budgetary effects brought on by the coronavirus.
Details of the new guidelines were met with mixed reviews by restaurant owners and industry groups, with many voicing frustration in the lack of a firm reopening date.
Without a concrete timeline for allowing both outdoor and indoor dining, restaurant owners are struggling with when to begin hiring back staff or ordering produce, steaks and fish, and ingredients from vendors across the country, said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
“To get product from California, Nebraska, Florida, it’s going to take five to six or seven days,” said Luz. “We’re an industry [where], right now, literally weeks, days, and hours matter.”
The majority of the state’s 16,000 restaurants — which have been restricted to takeout and delivery since mid-March as part of Baker’s sweeping efforts to control the spread of the virus — also face the challenge of transitioning, if they can, to outdoor service. Only about one-quarter of Massachusetts restaurants currently have outdoor seating capacity, said Luz, adding that he hopes officials will move quickly to streamline an otherwise arduous process to serve diners outdoors.
Typically, restaurants need approval from both their city or town, as well the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, to expand outside, a timeline that can take between seven to 10 weeks, Luz said. The goal, he said, is to whittle it down to seven to 10 days by giving authority solely to local officials.
Even so, a move to outdoor dining could be impossible for many restaurant owners.
While Domenico Fabiano, owner of Arturo’s Ristorante in Westborough, called Friday’s announcement a “move in the right direction for all restaurants," he also emphasized that going through the process to get temporary permission to erect outdoor seating might not be worth the trouble and extra costs, particularly when it remains unclear how diners will respond to the new measures.
“It’s really a major financial burden to try to procure a tent, tables, chairs, and barriers when there’s still a considerable amount of unpredictability," Fabiano said. "For someone like Arturo’s, and many restaurants, it just may not make any financial sense to open a temporary patio.”
Longtime restaurateur Marty Bloom, who owns the Boston-area restaurants Burro Bar and Mission on the Bay, also expressed frustration at the lack of notice that restaurant owners could receive ahead of the June 8 start date.
“June 6th? Are you kidding me, that gives me two days? I have to load my food in and train my employees,” he said. “Massachusetts has the highest intellectual capital on God’s green earth and I’ve never seen so many smart people making reprehensible decisions.”
Robert Earl, the owner of Bertucci’s, Planet Hollywood, and Buca di Beppo chains, said he was pleased with Baker’s plan.
Earl said he already operates about 40 restaurants in eight or nine states that have reopened, and all have managed to adhere to new instructions. He has been taking the temperature of his staff and said that, contrary to some reports, he has found employees ready and willing to go back to work.
“We’re not letting the staff hover too much, they’re wearing the gloves and the mask, and I think everyone is being respectful,” he said.
Baker said Friday he understands that some observers may think Massachusetts is moving too slowly or too quickly through the reopening process.
“I’m completely sympathetic to that,” he said. “But in the end, we need to make what we think is the best decision in the best way for the people of Massachusetts.”
Regardless of the reopening timeline, however, the dining experience figures to look markedly different.
According to the new measures, tables must remain six feet apart or separated by walls or six-foot-high plexiglass dividers, according to Baker’s guidelines. Parties will be capped at six people, and diners will not be allowed to sit at the bar. Menus must be disposed of after each use or otherwise be put on display or be accessible on customers’ phones.
Tables and chairs must also be sanitized after each party, and utensils should be rolled or packaged.
Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said that while employees will have to wear face coverings and patrons will have to do the same when moving about restaurants, customers while seated “don’t need to wear their face covering” and they can “enjoy the experience of dining out.”
Restaurants also should get diners’ contact information, whether they make a reservation or walk-in for a table, according to the guidelines. That’s similar to rules the Baker administration has imposed on other industries to track who comes and goes from their businesses.
In the event of a presumptive or actual positive COVID-19 case of a worker, patron, or vendor, the restaurant must immediately shut down for 24 hours and be cleaned and disinfected before reopening.
The guidelines come as many states are attempting to determine how best to reintroduce restaurant dining to their communities.
Many of Baker’s guidelines are reasonable, and in line with how other states and businesses have approached reopening restaurants, said David Hamer, an infectious disease expert at Boston Medical Center and professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
“I would feel comfortable sitting down in an outdoor place if there was enough space between diners,” Hamer said. “By late June, July, it may be reasonable to have some indoor service — as long as these same approaches can be taken.”
Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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