Massachusetts is set to begin a rollback of nearly all pandemic-era business restrictions, a move that impacts establishments across the state that have been operating under strict safety guidelines, and some that have not reopened, for more than a year.
The next step of reopening is slated for May 10, when among other developments, large venues, such as stadiums and ballparks, can increase capacity to 25 percent, up from 12 percent. Then, on May 29, restaurants will be able to seat parties of 10 per table, up from six, and bars and breweries will be able to reopen and serve drinks without food. (The City of Boston said on Tuesday that it will delay most of its reopening guidance by three weeks, compared to the state.)
If all goes according to plan, Baker said, the vast majority of statewide restrictions would be lifted by August 1, at which time operators of nightclubs, dance clubs, indoor water parks — and yes, ball pits — can resume business for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
“There is a general sigh of relief,” said Steve Clark, the vice president of government affairs of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “It is really great to have a roadmap and see the light at the end of this dark tunnel.”
Small changes to the restrictions, like bands being allowed to sing indoors starting May 10, greatly affect small business owners like Jonathan Wiegratz, drummer and founder of the Boston Common Band, who won’t have to worry about what to do with his wedding ensemble’s vocalist. For an indoor wedding on the Cape in June, he was initially thinking about having her stand outside and sing through a window.
Still, many restaurant owners were hoping to see more changes go into effect before the end of May, which is one of the industry’s busiest months. Between Mother’s Day and graduation celebrations, guests have already been asking to make reservations for parties larger than six people, Clark said.
“The reality is that our people have enforcement fatigue... They have to carry out the rules and regulations,” Clark said. “Now that people are vaccinated, they are way ahead of the government in the reopening.”
“Enforcement fatigue” is a major concern for Ed Kane, the owner of Big Night Entertainment Group, who said in an e-mail that “guests are simply listening less and less — and getting more and more irritated — when we enforce the rules.” Big Night owns several restaurants in the Boston area, including Empire and Scorpion Bar in the Seaport District.
“The amount of confrontational interactions in the last few weeks has skyrocketed and it is only going to get worse as more and more people get vaccinated and the weeks go on,” Kane said. “By mid May we think enforcement will be almost too risky. We are not the police. We will for sure lose senior employees who simply cannot take the abuse involved in enforcement.”
The outlook for nightclubs and dance clubs is still bleak — they have remained closed since last March and will miss out on the bulk of the summer with an August 1 reopening date. Many of these establishments have been left wondering why their industry was last to reopen while other activities, such as indoor dining and weddings, have resumed with restrictions in place.
Kane said 60 percent of Big Night’s staff was involved in its nightlife segment, working at venues such as Big Night Live and The Grand. They’ve been out of work during the pandemic, while the restaurant workers have been slowly returning since last June.
He added that Massachusetts lifting most business restrictions in August is “too late,” compared to the accelerated pace of neighboring states. Connecticut announced last week it would lift most business restrictions by May 19, and Rhode Island said it would aim to eliminate all temporary capacity limits on businesses by May 28.
“We stood by the Governor and the State throughout the entire pandemic. Even when it crushed us economically. Even when we did not 100 percent agree,” Kane said. “We are being asked to do too much, at great risk to our staff, for something we no longer believe in.”