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What If Massachusetts Restaurants Reopen on May 19?

A look at other cities and states provides a picture of what dining out could look like when dine-in service resumes in the Bay State

Stock photograph of a chef (bottom half visible) cooking with a fiery wok in a restaurant kitchen WStudio/Shutterstock

When Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the state will reopen its economy in four separate phases, he was careful not to provide too many details. “I don’t want the starting gun, so-called, to go off today or tomorrow,” Baker said during a press conference on May 13. “I want it to go off on Monday [May 18, the final day of the imposed shutdown]. And I want it to go off in a targeted and phased way. Period.”

The governor’s taciturn approach is apparently meant to keep businesses — especially those that won’t be included in phase one of the state’s reopening plan — from beginning the reopening process without first understanding the breadth of guidelines they’ll be required to follow.

It’s unlikely that bars and restaurants will be included in phase one of the state’s reopening plan. As of today, bars and restaurants are slated to reopen for dine-in service on May 19, but that goal post has shifted several times since the governor first ordered bars and restaurants to shut down for dine-in service. It’s reasonable to assume it will shift again when the governor announces which businesses can reopen on May 19. But what if Baker does include bars and restaurants with the group of businesses authorized to reopen next week? Will restaurants be prepared to reopen for dine-in service on the fly? Will they even want to? And if they do open, what will operating a restaurant business right now really look like?

For some, the desire to reopen exists. More than 100 restaurant operators — organized as the MA Restaurant and Jobs Group — sent a letter to Baker on May 12 asking that restaurants be included in phase one of the state’s reopening plan, assuming infection rates and hospitalizations are not rising. The letter also requests that restaurants be allowed to open at full capacity within a month. But Eater recently spoke with a number of restaurant operators and workers, each of whom believe May 19 is too early to reopen dining rooms. Their concerns were manifold, but each agreed that doing so would be unsafe.

If restaurants are given the green light to reopen for dine-in service on May 19 — every restaurant operator Eater has spoken with recently believes the date will be pushed back again — there is sure to be a long list of guidelines they’ll be required to follow in order to safely welcome patrons back into their dining rooms. (The MA Restaurant and Jobs Group letter provided its own list of guidelines, which it apparently intends to self-impose.) For those restaurants seriously considering reopening, it might be instructive to look toward other cities and states that have already allowed — or are on the verge of allowing — dine-in service to resume.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has imposed a curfew on the state’s restaurants, requiring them to end dinner service by 10 p.m. (Portland restaurant operators — who are not included in the state’s first phase of reopening — aren’t thrilled with the rule.) In cities that have resumed dine-in service — like Atlanta and Houston — or will resume dine-in service soon — like Miami — restaurants must follow strict guidelines to ensure the safety of their staff and guests. Those guidelines include but are not limited to caps on capacity, caps on party size, posting signage that disallows patrons from entering if they’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, ensuring all restaurant workers wear gloves and masks, spacing tables at least six feet apart, temperature checks for restaurant staff, and using disposable menus.

Some of those guidelines are easy enough to implement (spacing tables six feet apart, limiting party sizes, and printing paper menus, for example), but others are trickier. Restaurants with already small capacities might find it difficult to turn a profit if they’re only allowed to fill 50 percent of their seats. Capacity caps will disproportionately hurt these restaurants. And in a state where personal protective equipment (PPE) has been hard to come by, even for essential hospital workers, ensuring that every restaurant worker in every restaurant in the state wears a mask and gloves at all times will likely prove difficult. Indeed, restaurant operators have begun to express that exact concern.

During a virtual town hall hosted by Massachusetts Restaurant United on May 14, Villa Mexico Cafe cook and operator Bessie King said she had to go to three different restaurant supply stores to procure enough PPE to equip her staff. She suggested that federal, state, and local governments should work to set up a PPE bank that can be accessed by restaurants operators and workers.

“I would love to see some sort of PPE supply bank just for restaurateurs or essential workers to shop at or to receive, even from the government,” King said. “It’s hard to find basic PPE supplies like gloves, so having a resource bank would be incredibly helpful for us to stay safe.”

Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley also participated in the town hall and ensured King and other restaurant operators that access to PPE remained one of her top priorities.

To mitigate some of the pain restaurants will feel as they attempt to reopen their dining rooms, Boston may do as other cities (Berkeley, California, for example) have done and pedestrianize certain streets to allow for more outdoor dining, among other things. Doing so would allow restaurants to more easily create distance between tables. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh seems open to the idea.

“As summer approaches and the weather brings more people outdoors, and as we prepare for a phased reopening, we want to make sure we have enough space for safe distancing; we want to make sure our small businesses can get the support and space they need; and we want to make sure everyone has safe and healthy transportation options,” said Walsh during a May 11 press conference.

Even if Baker does include restaurants in phase one of the state’s reopening plan — and even if he provides a comprehensive list of guidelines to do so safely — diners and restaurant workers alike still might not feel comfortable returning to restaurants. And some restaurant operators may not want to reopen, either. If Atlanta is any sort of example, there will be plenty of Boston restaurateurs who won’t reopen for dine-in service, even if they’re allowed to.

It’s unclear at the moment whether restaurants will be included in phase one of the state’s reopening plan, but it’s clear dining out will look very different in Boston whenever restaurants do open again.

Gov. Baker Announces the 4 Phases Mass. Will Follow to Reopen the Economy [BOS]
Charlie Baker explains why he isn’t tipping who will be in the first reopening phase in Massachusetts [BOS]
The Massachusetts Restaurant Closure (Except for Takeout and Delivery) Will Continue Through May 18 [EBOS]
Massachusetts Restaurants Probably Won’t Reopen by May 18 — and Probably Shouldn’t [EBOS]
Restaurant Owners Aren’t Thrilled With the Premise of a 10 p.m. Curfew [EPOR]
Where Restaurants Have Reopened Across the U.S. [E]
Atlanta Restaurants Reopening for Dine-In Service The Week of April 27 [EATL]
What It’s Like For Houston Restaurants to Reopen Right Now [EHOU]
Palm Beach Restaurants Begin Reopening Today — Miami and Broward Will Possibly Reopen on May 18 [EMIA]
A Patriots Plane Full of 1 Million N95 Fasks from China Arrived Thursday. Here’s How the Plan Came Together. [BG]
Berkeley Will Fully Close Its Streets to Create Giant Outdoor Dining Rooms [ESF]
The Number of Atlanta Restaurants Not Reopening This Week Continues to Grow [EATL]