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As businesses digest CDC mask guidance, some look to Governor Baker for faster reopening

Customers ate at sidewalk tables outside Baramore restaurant in Newton Centre this week.
Customers ate at sidewalk tables outside Baramore restaurant in Newton Centre this week.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Businesses around the region reacted with a mix of optimism and concern after federal officials on Thursday eased guidelines around mask-wearing and social distancing for fully vaccinated people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory that says vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks indoors or stay 6 feet apart. The main concern among companies contacted by the Globe is how that conflicts with the current mandate in Massachusetts, which will continue to require masks in indoor public places and outdoors where people cannot keep their distance from others.

The news comes as many businesses are contemplating return-to-work protocols. While most office employers said they aren’t changing their reopening timelines, other businesses will have to deal with confusion from the public.

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Jess Fracalossi, founder of the cycling studio The Handle Bar in Boston, said she is already anticipating questions from riders over why they still have to follow the state’s mask mandate. Gyms and fitness studios are also currently limited to 50 percent occupancy, or 10 people per 1,000 square feet, and individuals must keep 6 feet apart.

“I don’t want to tell somebody they have to wear a mask if the CDC is telling them they don’t, so it puts me in a hard position,” she said. “It will be a good day when we can take the masks off, or have them be optional,” she said. “I’m kind of holding my breath and hoping that [Governor Charlie Baker] is going to surprise us and say everything is lifted.

A spokeswoman for Baker said his administration “welcomes the new CDC guidance and will be updating Massachusetts’ COVID restrictions in the near future. In the meantime, the current mask order remains in place.”

Under the Baker administration’s reopening schedule, on May 29, gathering limits will increase to 200 people indoors and 250 outdoors, while restaurants can increase table seatings to 10 people. Baker has said most remaining limits can be lifted on Aug. 1 so long as infection rates trend downward.

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Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey indicated the city will continue to follow the state guidance on indoor masks while reviewing the CDC announcement. Boston plans to lift other restrictions three weeks after the state does.

For nearly a year, the Baker administration has required office workers to wear masks at all times when not alone at their individual workspaces. This means that for the near term, employers could be looking at two sets of rules: one for vaccinated employees, and one for the unvaccinated.

“That opens up a big can of worms,” said Jeffrey Gilbreth, an employment lawyer at Nixon Peabody in Boston.

Gilbreth said it’s possible some companies may opt to stay remote until the mask mandates come down for everyone, while others may follow a bifurcated approach. Employers will need to decide whether to simply trust employees about whether they have been vaccinated, he said, or to require some proof, such as a signed attestation or a vaccination card.

However, once an employer starts asking for evidence, the documentation needs to be kept confidential. “You need to treat them like medical records,” Gilbreth said.

Many local office employers have told workers to expect to return, at least for a few days a week, after Labor Day, while many others have not set a definitive date. James Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, expects the CDC guidance will encourage employers to set a firm date now, with a September return-to-office date becoming more widespread.

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Like others, Rooney hopes the CDC rules will persuade Baker and Janey to accelerate their reopening plans.

“The context has changed,” Rooney said. “The data is different from the CDC, who has more information than anybody [about COVID-19]. That should be meaningful in terms of these dates. . . . There are a lot of businesses that, with the summer months upon us, they depend on this season.”

Some retailers and restaurateurs — businesses that require close interaction with customers — said they would continue to follow the state’s rule on indoor masks despite the CDC guidance.

Don Levy, owner of Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, said he plans to keep making employees and customers mask up inside. He expects all of his employees to be fully vaccinated soon but anticipates some customers will remain holdouts, and young children don’t have shots yet.

It “only takes one person to spread it,” said Levy. “I’d feel better if they still wore their masks. We have a responsibility to our fellow man.”

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he thinks the CDC’s guidance will make consumers feel more comfortable about going out to local businesses, but also hopes it will help prod Baker into moving up the state’s timeline.

“We continue to be leading the nation on vaccinations, yet we are kind of bringing up the rear in reopening,” he said. “We think [the guidance] will be updated soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more activity along those lines in the coming days.”

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He added that individual stores are likely to take their own approach, even if the Baker administration were to follow the CDC’s lead.

“A whole lot of businesses still haven’t changed their policies, whether that is the level of occupancy they have, whether they still have senior hours, or one-way aisles,” Hurst said. “I think this is going to be a step-by-step process.”

Grocery chain Stop & Shop also said it will continue to follow executive orders in place in Massachusetts and require masks indoors.

Ed Kane, the owner of Big Night Entertainment Group which operates restaurants and nightclubs in Boston, said the updated mask guidance sends an important message to the public about the importance of getting vaccinated. But he doesn’t expect it to have an immediate effect until the Massachusetts restrictions change. Currently for restaurants and bars, parties are capped at a maximum of six patrons, and dining time is limited to 90 minutes.

Kane said his employees will continue to wear masks until the majority of the staff is vaccinated. The company has a team dedicated to tracking vaccination rates, helping employees book appointments, and providing information to those who may be hesitant.

Kane said Big Night briefly considered building a system to verify whether guests are fully vaccinated, but ultimately decided against doing so.

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“It is impossible to ask for it and impossible to enforce, so we will take people at their word,” he said. “The world is opening up and it is safe to be indoors if you are vaccinated. But it doesn’t really change anything about how we are going to handle the safety protocols that we follow.”

Still, the CDC announcement was a welcome signal to companies as they continue to plan for workers to return to the office.

A spokesman for Fidelity Investments, Michael Aalto, called the new CDC guidance on indoor mask wearing an “encouraging development.”

But, he said it does not change Fidelity’s reopening timeline, which is still in development. He said Fidelity is considering several factors, such as social distancing protocols and limits on large gatherings, to determine its plan. When that happens, Fidelity is likely to take a hybrid approach and allow employees more flexibility about where they work.

Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8. Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.