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‘This really doesn’t change anything’: Business owners say relaxed capacity restrictions are deceiving

Maria Delvecchio enjoyed a Capriese salad as Adam Roellke served her a glass of white wine at Victory Point in Marina Bay on Monday. That was the first day of Step 2 of Phase III of the State's reopening plan, under which  where restaurants no longer have a percent capacity limit; six-foot social distancing, limits of six people per table, and 90 minute limits remain in place.
Maria Delvecchio enjoyed a Capriese salad as Adam Roellke served her a glass of white wine at Victory Point in Marina Bay on Monday. That was the first day of Step 2 of Phase III of the State's reopening plan, under which where restaurants no longer have a percent capacity limit; six-foot social distancing, limits of six people per table, and 90 minute limits remain in place.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Relaxed capacity limits for businesses, restaurants, and other spaces went into effect in most of Massachusetts Monday, but it was difficult to tell whether they were making a difference.

Governor Charlie Baker allowed most businesses, including office spaces, gyms, and retail stores, to bump their capacity limit from 40 to 50 percent, and it ended occupancy limits on restaurants. Indoor performance venues and recreation spaces can reopen at 50 percent capacity, although not yet in Boston.

The catch: Social distancing protocols are still in place, a measure that serves to limit capacity, especially in smaller spaces. While some public health experts have warned that the state’s reopening plan could hinder the state’s progress in combating the coronavirus, business owners say the latest easing of restrictions are deceiving.

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“Everyone got excited when we heard, but then when you thought about it, this really doesn’t change anything,” said Kristine Higgins, the chief financial officer of Somers Pubs, which owns several Irish restaurants, including Mr. Dooley’s and The Green Dragon Tavern.

With six feet of distance still required between tables, no more than six people per table, and a limit of 90 minutes per party, she said, Somers Pubs restaurants cannot increase their capacity.

“People will think we can allow more guests in, but we can’t,” Higgins said.

Even the news about live music being allowed in restaurants — although not in Boston — came with restrictions that make it impossible for Somers Pubs to welcome entertainment, she said. The state says there must be at least 10 feet between performers, in addition to 25 feet separating them from patrons.

“Unless you have a bigger venue, you won’t be able to have bands,” said.

For businesses that could begin increasing capacity from 40 to 50 percent, there was a similar feeling that the reopening step was insignificant.

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Jon Hurst, president of the state’s retailers association, said there “isn’t a huge difference between 40 and 50” percent, noting it will have a greater impact on smaller stores since large retailers rarely hit full capacity.

Bill Ferguson, an employee at GymIt in Watertown, said the gym can’t operate at 50 percent capacity even if it wanted to, noting that the 23,000-square-foot space can’t evenreach its permitted capacity because of social distancing protocols.

GymIt is only allowing up to 90 people inside at one time, although the building’s actual capacity limit is 400. Ferguson said the gym used to check in up to 350 clients over the course of one morning, but now it checks in closer to 75.

“We’re not even at 25 percent,” he said. “I don’t think we could fit over 100 people at one time with six feet in between people.”

Still, Hurst noted that even if the looser capacity restrictions do not amount to a material impact for most businesses, the “overall messaging of some steps of relaxation is an important, positive message to consumers, particularly as we enter spring.”


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.