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‘It was like spring break.’ A sunny weekend brings out crowds quick to abandon social distancing guidelines

People gathered at cafe tables placed in the closed parking lane on Hanover Street in the North End on June 12.
People gathered at cafe tables placed in the closed parking lane on Hanover Street in the North End on June 12.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

On Sunday, as the number of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts hit 105,603, a diner on the outdoor patio of the Barking Crab asked a waitress why she was wearing a mask.

“It’s like, ‘Where have you been the last three months?’ ” thought Alexandra Morris, the director of operations at the seafood mainstay on the Fort Point Channel, which reopened for al fresco dining on Thursday after the pandemic forced its closure back in March.

Restaurateurs across the city, nearly crippled by a spring without dine-in revenue, have reconstructed their spaces to comply with restrictions meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Eager diners, itching for some sense of normalcy (and a glass of wine poured by anyone other than a household member), flocked to the scattering of open restaurants in droves.

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But some say that limited outdoor space and the very nature of eating and drinking make full compliance with guidelines nearly impossible and that many patrons throw caution to the wind the minute they take a seat.

A mile away from the Barking Crab on West 3rd Street, the weekend masses descended upon Coppersmith, a hotspot for young day drinkers. With a rooftop patio and a massive parking lot, the South Boston restaurant boasts far more outdoor space than many city locales. But social distancing violations can occur even in the most spacious of venues if patrons choose to congregate, noted Coppersmith doorman Randall Farr.

“People were thrilled to be back out. This city, especially in Southie, feels like it’s the law that they should be out and about,” said Farr, who stopped by the restaurant on its reopening night last Tuesday. “When you combine food, drinks, alcohol and the euphoria of no longer being in strict lockdown, it’s understandable that people might be excited and mingling.”

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In the South End, at Yellow Door Taqueria, people were so hellbent on dining out on Thursday that they ate huddled under handheld umbrellas during a downpour. The weekend brought a steady three-hour wait at the restaurant, which first opened exactly 30 days before having to shut down for the pandemic. Co-owner Jarek Mountain said most diners cooperated to keep the space safe and compliant.

But some fear that the joy over the newfound liberties of Phase 2 and the warm weather that has accompanied them has prompted patrons to act with reckless abandon.

“A lot of people will bring a mask because they know they are required to wear one to get in, but then they take it off the minute they sit down,” said Morris, who has worked at the Barking Crab for 11 years. “So then it’s constantly policing people to tell them to wear a mask, to not roam. It’s a bizarre thing.”

Boston public health officials did not respond directly to questions of whether worrisome lapses in physical distancing occurred over the weekend, but said that “[data] continues to move in the right direction.” But Ruth Jones, the commissioner of the Quincy Health Department, said crowds flocked to the popular Marina Bay commercial district this weekend.

Jones said the health department has been telling restaurants to remind their customers to wear masks and to stay 6 feet apart from one another.

"People need reminding," she said.

Bessie King, whose family has owned Villa Mexico Cafe for two decades (first in Woburn, but now in the Financial District), said the burden to maintain safety while reopening should fall upon the patron as well as the proprietor. King said she completed two deliveries Friday in South Boston, and each time she saw unmasked groups heading toward M Street Beach, which has been seeing crowds since May.

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“It was like spring break. It was completely disheartening to see like 3 or 4 masks in total,” said King. “The public has to cooperate and get it into their heads that this is everyone’s responsibility, not just the shop owner or restaurateur or the police or the mayor. All of us have to take part.”

For all the relief that comes with the reopening, restaurant owners dread the possibility of having to shut down again. In several states, officials have discussed pausing or rolling back reopening plans amid warnings that COVID-19 cases are rising.

On Sunday, New York’s governor warned that if local officials did not crack down on blatant social distancing violations in New York City and the Hamptons, the state could be forced to suspend reopening plans in those areas. Utah and Oregon put any further reopening of their economies on hold Saturday amid a spike in coronavirus cases. And about one week after officially reopening, a number of Florida bars — in cities like Naples, St. Petersburg, and Orlando — voluntarily shut down their dining rooms again after employees tested positive for the virus.

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“Restaurants will not be able to survive a second closure,” said King, echoing the concerns of Morris and Mountain. “Honest to God, we cannot come back from that.”

Massachusetts has reopened more cautiously than almost anywhere else in the country, in part because it has seen 7,624 virus-related deaths as of Monday, the third-highest state death toll to date. For the past month, key metrics have continued to trend downward, suggesting that the state is effectively battling the deadly pandemic.

But with each phase of reopening comes new issues. Phase 2 safety standards for restaurants mandate tables to be more than six feet apart but make no mention of the distance between chairs. The latest phase has inspired a wave of complaints about restaurants in violation of the distancing standards on Boston’s 311 report log.

“No 6 ft social distancing here,” reported one submission about a brewery. “Please address so we don't have another spike of Covid cases.”

Emily Sweeney of the Globe staff contributed to this story.


Hanna can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger.