Restaurants won’t be able to let up on mask requirements anytime soon. They won’t be allowed to ease rules limiting patrons to 90-minute dining times. And they won’t get to pack in parties closer than 6 feet apart. But on Monday, they’ll be free from strict limits to their capacity for the first time in months.
For many restaurants, that change — announced by Governor Charlie Baker Thursday — may be enough to get them through this long, hard winter.
“Yesterday was the best day our industry had since March 14, 2020,” said Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, on Friday, referring to the last day of normal operations before the broad lockdown that accompanied the initial outbreak of COVID-19.
Baker’s new reopening protocols will also allow dining establishments to offer live music indoors again. And the governor said that if the state continues to see declines in pandemic risk, the rules for restaurants will relax further on March 22, clearing the way for facilities to host larger indoor functions such as weddings.
All these pieces could make a difference for restaurants, who are struggling to remain open after a ruinous year. Luz said the ability to increase capacity even modestly will be pivotal. Eateries have been limited to 40 percent capacity since early this month, when they were allowed to increase from 25 percent.
Luz said the rules that take effect Monday will mean many restaurants can boost their occupancy slightly above 50 percent, an increase that might represent the margin between losing money and breaking even.
“We can move from survival mode to recovery mode, and now get back to thriving again as a Massachusetts business,” said Charlie Noyes, president of Woburn-based 99 Restaurant & Pub chain, which has 58 of its 103 restaurants located in the state. Noyes says his payroll was down 31 percent last month compared with the comparable period in 2020, but he believes he can hire 1,200 people over the next several months, including about 800 in Massachusetts.
Noyes said the relaxing of the restrictions in general, even more than the specific measures being loosened, will give customers confidence to return.
But the sense of relief that has come along with Baker’s latest moves highlights the risk to both businesses and to public health, should there be another spike in cases.
On Friday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called for caution on reopening even amid progress on vaccinations. She cited some alarming signs, including a recent increase in cases and indications that fast-spreading variants of the virus are becoming more prevalent in the United States.
“It’s important to remember where we are in the pandemic,” Walensky said. “Things are tenuous. Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”
Baheja Rostami, co-owner of Afghani eatery Ariana Restaurant in Brighton, said her restaurant’s regular customers, who tend to be older, still feel uneasy about dining inside during the pandemic.
Ariana Restaurant only serves about eight tables daily on the weekends; it would need to seat roughly 50 people at one time to reach the 40 percent limit that has been in place.
”I don’t blame people; it has been a year,” she said. “People are ordering out, working from home.… To have people come back out will take some time.”
Christina Prignano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.