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‘It’s going to be pretty packed’: COVID restrictions give way to full reopening at businesses this weekend

Cheeky Monkey Brewing Co. in Boston counted down the seconds until the clock struck midnight on May 29, marking the end of COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts.
Cheeky Monkey Brewing Co. in Boston counted down the seconds until the clock struck midnight on May 29, marking the end of COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When Coady Cline, a nightlife director at Boston VIP List, promotes an event, he usually doesn’t hype up the fact that it is a “full capacity” affair.

But that phrase is stripped across the flyer — next to “21+” — for an event at The Greatest Bar on Saturday, the day most of the state’s pandemic-era rules lift. To celebrate, Cline said, there will be dancing, lots of glow sticks, and two DJs bumping music across the Boston venue’s four floors.

“We thought [people] might be cautious and not want to go out,” Cline said. “But we already had a couple hundred people RSVP. It is going to be pretty packed.”

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Starting Saturday, businesses including stores, bars, restaurants, casinos, and gyms are able to operate at full capacity, and high-contact establishments like nightclubs can open for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Vaccinated people can drop their masks indoors, except in riskier settings such as hospitals and public transportation.

The lifting of the rules marks a major step in the state’s recovery from COVID-19, which for more than a year has pummeled the economy, contributing to widespread layoffs and businesses closures.

“The people of Massachusetts have been through so much over the past year, but together, they’ve done a spectacular job of putting COVID on the run,” Governor Charlie Baker said during a news conference Friday. “Brighter days are very much upon us.”

Some establishments quite literally rang in the new era. A DJ at Cheeky Monkey Brewing Co. on Lansdowne Street was set to count down the seconds until midnight. As Friday night became Saturday morning, the brewpub hoped to reach its full capacity of 575 people, employees planned to knock down plexiglass barriers, and customers were to be allowed to party maskless until 2 a.m.

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“We plan to just have things go back to the way they were,” Ashley Arnoldy, digital media coordinator at Cheeky Monkey, said before the event. “It is really great … to have our customers back and be able to interact with them.”

But while some industries celebrate a dramatic return to something like normal, people in other sectors warn that some effects of the crisis will take longer to unwind. For instance, though offices will be allowed to return to full capacity starting Saturday, few expect white-collar workers to come flooding back at pre-pandemic levels anytime soon.

People who track Boston’s office market estimate that downtown towers are currently about 10 percent full on any given day, while suburban office buildings are at perhaps 20 percent. Most employers have been planning for staff to return to the office this fall, and switching on the fly is just too complicated.

“Labor Day is still kind of that sweet spot for the companies we’re talking to,” said Liz Berthelette, research director at real estate firm Newmark. “I think you’ll find more companies opening on a voluntary basis for those who want to come back in. But I don’t know how many are doing a complete 180. It’s mostly staying the course.”

That means businesses such as lunch spots, office support services, and after-work hangouts could continue to languish, even as other industries hope to roar back to life.

Many consumer-facing businesses, meanwhile, will choose a slower approach, in some cases keeping mask mandates in place. Some worry about the safety of front-line workers, who may feel unsafe not knowing whether unmasked customers are vaccinated.

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State Senator Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat, said he’s already hearing that Cape Cod businesses including some dance clubs, will require patrons to provide proof of vaccination upon entry to protect other patrons and workers at the venues. ”Being on a crowded dance floor is a little bit different than visiting a retail shop or a restaurant,” he said.

Another challenge for companies in the coming days will be the difficulty in hiring enough workers to support increased levels of service. Arnoldy said Cheeky Monkey has been doing interviews with job applicants all week but still has only 35 percent of the usual 50-person staff.

At Encore Boston Harbor, which like the state’s other two casinos is allowed to open at full capacity Saturday, management is looking to hire about 400 people to add to the roughly 2,700 it currently has on staff. Before the pandemic, the Everett resort had a full-time work force of about 3,300 and about 1,100 part-timers.

Nonetheless, Encore officials believe they can handle what they expect to be a surge in customers — especially those who play table games — over the busy weekend, which they kicked off with a champagne toast on the casino floor as the restrictions expired at midnight.

“The requirements that go with being fully compliant with the COVID restrictions are a lot,” said Jenny Holaday, Encore’s executive vice president of operations. “Having those guard rails be removed is really exciting both for our employees and for our guests, so everybody can just relax and enjoy themselves and have a nice time.”

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Those venturing out this weekend will likely notice a difference — even amid the expected cool and damp weather. That could mean being shoulder-to-shoulder with people in a bar or taproom, sitting in a restaurant for more than 90 minutes with a large group, or seeing a tour bus pass by with maskless faces.

“We’ll be glad to see our trolleys, duck boats, and tour boats filled with people having a great time,” said Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I think restaurants will be in full swing, and I know our hotels are delighted.”

Sheridan said she is encouraged by the fact that traffic at Logan International Airport is picking up. Airport officials said they served more than 400,000 passengers in a recent week, a level of travel not seen in more than a year. Sheridan expects more out-of-state visitors in Massachusetts this summer, which should provide a needed boost to the tourism industry as it ramps up.

There are few industries more eager to get back to full speed than hotels, most of which have been pummeled in the pandemic as business travel dried up and tourists all but disappeared. Paul Sacco, CEO of the Massachusetts Lodging Association, said the summer is already looking “far better than last year.”

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“It really is the weekend of the change,” Sacco said. “After a year of agony.”

Travis Andersen, Tim Logan, and Andy Rosen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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