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Gov. Charlie Baker Tightens Mask Restrictions, Table Capacities for Massachusetts Restaurants

But new rules announced on December 8, aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, stop short of another shutdown of indoor dining

Stock photograph of restaurant kitchen staff in white jackets with faces hidden behind a metal prep counter. ESB Professional/Shutterstock

With COVID-19 in its second surge in Massachusetts and beyond, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced several updates to the state’s pandemic response in his December 8 briefing, including a list of new restaurant guidelines surrounding masks and table capacity limits. Baker said that every community in the Commonwealth would be moved back into Phase 3, Step 1 of the state’s reopening plan — which itself doesn’t directly roll back restaurant rules — but new directives have been added, falling short of shutting indoor dining down again.

Beginning Sunday, December 13, restaurant patrons must remain masked any time they are not eating or drinking. (The previous guidelines allowed diners to remove their masks once they were seated inside a restaurant.) Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said that requiring diners to wear masks whenever they’re not eating or drinking will protect diners as well as restaurant employees.

The new guidelines also reduce caps on table capacity from 10 diners to six. In addition to capacity limits, the new guidelines set forth time limits on restaurant dining: Each party’s meal will be limited to 90 minutes. Polito also urged that people only dine out with members of their own household, stating that doing so will help reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“We’ve asked a lot of our restaurant owners and operators throughout this pandemic,” said Polito. “The restaurant community has gone to great lengths to enact safety protocols, from partitions to outdoor dining, and has done a great job operating safely. They’ve been creative and innovative, and have worked hard to make people feel safe coming in and out of their establishments. And more importantly, to allow their workers to feel safe providing services in their restaurants day in and day out.”

But she and Baker each emphasized that as the virus continues to spread rapidly throughout the state, stretching the limits of the healthcare system, a rollback on the reopening plan is necessary.

Polito also alluded to clusters of COVID-19 infection related to social clubs (think VFW, Elks, American Legion, etc.), and cautioned that social clubs must follow the same guidelines as restaurants going forward, if they serve food.

Additionally, musical performances inside restaurants will no longer be permitted, and food court seating in malls will be closed.

Baker also announced that all other businesses allowed to remain open under Phase 3, Step 1 of the state’s reopening plan — gyms, libraries, retail stores, movie theaters, etc. — will have to operate at 40 percent capacity. Capacity at outdoor events will be curtailed from 100 people to 50 people; people planning to host private outdoor gatherings with more than 25 people must notify their local board of health in advance.

Today’s new guidelines come just a day after Baker downplayed the likelihood of a return to an indoor dining shutdown like the state saw from March into June. In his December 7 briefing, Baker stressed that Massachusetts’ restaurant rules are among the “most aggressive” in the country and that he’s more worried about informal gatherings driving the spread of COVID-19, not restaurants. In today’s remarks, he also noted that the ongoing lack of a new federal stimulus package to help gig workers would make it difficult to return to tighter restrictions on the industry.

But while Baker has described the state’s guidelines as among the most aggressive, other cities and states around the country are shutting indoor dining back down — and, in some cases, even putting a stop to outdoor dining — and some Massachusetts communities, such as Cambridge, are considering rolling back indoor dining as well.