Governor Charlie Baker said Friday that restaurants in Massachusetts can begin offering indoor dining on Monday as the state’s gradual reopening continues amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The reaction from restaurant owners and diners was a mix of relief, surprise, and concern about health and safety issues. Even after Baker’s latest move to ease restrictions, it is clear that dining out will not see a return to normal any time soon.
Baker said restaurant tables indoors will have to be at least 6 feet apart, though there won’t be a capacity limit. Party sizes will be limited to six people, and bar seating will be prohibited, he said at his regular State House briefing.
“We’re moving in the right direction as we continue our gradual reopening,” Baker said. He urged all residents to continue social distancing, wearing masks in public, practicing good hygiene, and monitoring for symptoms. “We should keep in mind that COVID doesn’t take the summer off.”
Baker touted the plummeting positive test rate for the virus in Massachusetts, which currently stands at about 2.3 percent. “We’re going to want at least two weeks of indoor dining data,” he said, before the state will move on to the next reopening phase.
In addition to indoor restaurant service returning, close-contact services such as nail salons can also reopen Monday with restrictions, and retail outlets will be permitted to open dressing rooms by appointment only, Baker said. Also, offices will be permitted to increase their capacity to 50 percent.
It’s been just over three months since Massachusetts restaurants were ordered closed except for takeout and delivery, as part of the statewide orders that closed nonessential businesses for weeks. On June 8, restaurants in the state were permitted to reopen for outdoor dining.
For Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, indoor dining could not have come soon enough. Only 20 percent of the association’s members had space for outdoor seating before the pandemic, he said, and the association predicts that coronavirus-related closures could wipe out roughly one quarter of the state’s restaurants.
Luz said some restaurants have already called back employees to train them on new safety protocols ahead of the Monday reopening, which was anticipated by some.
“We have had the entire spring season to lay out our dining rooms — people knew it was going to look different,” he said. “They have been rearranging and getting ready for this moment.”
Indoor dining comes as a relief for those who have been relying on the recent stretch of mild weather for outdoor service. Luz said the biggest hurdle to reopening will be restocking kitchens.
“All of the suppliers lost millions and millions of dollars when we shut down with two days of notice — we have to resupply that,” Luz said. “Nobody [was] going to order the quantity of food they need to restock shelves until they [knew] the date.”
Employees at Ariana Restaurant, a family-owned Afghani eatery in Brighton, began preparing the space for indoor dining as soon as they heard the news from the governor on Friday.
“When I heard the announcement, I called my husband and said, ‘Are you ready to open on Monday?’ and he said, ‘Yes,’” co-owner Baheja Rostami said. “He is there cleaning now, and I’m going over later to put up posters, separate tables ... and get everything situated — we are really excited.”
She said the restaurant will cut its indoor capacity by about half — from 20 people to around 10 — to accommodate for social distancing. The restaurant hopes in-person sales will bring revenue back to 50 to 70 percent of what it was before the pandemic, although Rostami knows not all customers will be willing to dine indoors right away.
“Some are really eager to come back, and some say they are not coming until we get a [vaccine], which I get,” she said.
Baker’s announcement on Friday was a surprise for some restaurant owners.
“For many of us who have been waiting for this guidance for a while, it was welcomed but also kind of a shock,” said Will Gilson, owner of Puritan & Co. “We figured we would have more of a heads-up for a date that was farther away than three days away ... for many of us, it is kind of a scramble.”
He said the Cambridge restaurant removed about 70 percent of its dining room furniture and installed glass partitions between some seating areas. The restaurant plans to open on July 1 and only take reservations so it can control traffic flow. Guests will receive an e-mail ahead of time describing new safety protocols.
While some restaurants stock up on hand sanitizer and plastic barriers, many owners and patrons are still hesitant to resume dining inside.
Tony Maws, chef-owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, is not planning to reopen yet for outdoor or indoor dining and will continue to do takeout orders until “there’s a lot more clarity from a health standpoint, safety standpoint, and from a financial standpoint,” he said.
Maws said for many restaurant owners, the “math doesn’t work” to reopen indoors right now at reduced capacity, as they’d need to pay the capital costs to reconfigure tables or install plexiglass, and then account for all the additional protective equipment needed for their staff.
Maws has been lobbying Baker to provide more financial assistance to restaurants through the Massachusetts Restaurants United group, and said the independent owners he’s speaking to are making only 30 percent of their typical sales this time of year. He said even the decision this week to delay the deadlines for paying state meals taxes won’t be enough, so the group is calling on the governor to extend the moratorium on evictions until the end of 2020 and create a rent relief tax fund for the landlords of small businesses.
“Everything that we’re doing right now is putting a finger in the dike but the water is still trickling out,” Maws said.
Many would-be patrons also expressed hesitation at the thought of dining indoors.
Thomas Levenson, an author and professor of science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said even though the state seems to be doing well in terms of reducing the COVID-19 caseload, he’s still not planning to set foot inside a restaurant.
“We know from examples in other countries that the enclosed space of a restaurant — particularly in hot weather, where there is air conditioning going — is a perfectly great place to recirculate air and hence recirculate virus,” the 61-year-old Brookline resident said. And many of the features that make a restaurant a lively place can also be high risk factors.
“People speak, and make themselves heard over sound systems, and drink, and get loud … all of which is great and why we go out,” he said. “But these are all ways in which you can propel aerosols of the virus particles out into the world.”
Gilson, meanwhile, said establishing trust will be key to attracting and retaining customers for in-person dining.
“We want to make sure when we pour a draft beer or shake a cocktail over ice, that when it gets to the table, the guests don’t think twice about taking a sip,” he said.
But Revere resident Mabel Francisco, 23, is not there yet. She said she’s not planning to eat indoors at a restaurant — nor has she opted for the outdoor option.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” she said. “I get it, because businesses are suffering and people need to get back to work. But I feel like if I got sick, and had to go to work and other people in my office get sick, it feels like we would be back at square one.”
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