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Restaurants Have Begun to Reopen, at Least for Outdoor Service, in Some New England States

Maine is permitting restricted dine-in service in some counties but not in others, and New Hampshire is now allowing outdoor service

Empty picnic tables, each with a blue and white umbrella, are spread across a parking lot in front of a restaurant. A Holiday Inn is visible right behind the restaurant.
Picnic tables are spread out across a parking lot at Airport Diner in Manchester, New Hampshire, which reopened for outdoor dining on May 18
Airport Diner/Facebook

Cities and states across the country are beginning to ease restrictions put in place over the past several months to stem the spread of COVID-19, and that means that restaurants are beginning to reopen their dining rooms and patios to customers. (This primer explains how restaurant workers and diners alike can protect themselves while working at and dining at restaurants during the pandemic.)

Reopening plans are determined by state governments, not the federal government, and as such differ from one state to the next. What’s true about reopening in Massachusetts won’t be true about reopening in Florida, and so on.

Whereas Georgia was at the vanguard of reopening — despite the fact that cases were still on the rise when it did so — New England states have taken a more cautious approach. Indeed, Massachusetts and Connecticut were the last two states in the country to begin the reopening process.

Here’s a state-by-state breakdown, as it currently stands, with regard to eating out around New England.

Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that restaurants would reopen for dine-in service in phase two of the state’s four-phase reopening plan, which was initiated on May 18 when manufacturing and construction industries, as well as houses of worship, were permitted to reopen. Each phase of the plan will last at least three weeks, which means the earliest restaurants could reopen for dine-in service is some time during the second week of June. (Bars that do not prepare food onsite will be part of phase three, not phase two.)

No guidelines have been issued for the resumption of dine-in service in Massachusetts, however Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito did say that the state has developed a new restaurant, accommodations, and tourism working group — which is like an advisory group of industry experts — and that it will work alongside state legislators to determine what safety protocols and guidelines businesses and customers will need to follow once businesses do reopen.

Restaurant workers and operators Eater spoke with previously believed restaurants wouldn’t be among the earliest businesses to open as Massachusetts eased COVID-19 restrictions and began to reopen its economy. But a vocal group of more than 100 restaurant operators organized as the MA Restaurant and Jobs Group have sent multiple letters to Gov. Baker imploring him to permit restaurants to open during phase one. The group was hoping to at least be permitted to open for outdoor dining service by Memorial Day. (See Massachusetts’ full reopening plan here; more information will be announced as each phase gets closer to beginning.)

New Hampshire

In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu permitted restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining service on May 18, though he did not permit them to reopen for dine-in service. In order to accommodate customers, New Hampshire restaurants must have outdoor service space, which can take the form of a patio, lawn, parking lot, or sidewalk. Tables must be spaced at least six feet apart, parties will be limited to no more than six customers, and outdoor dining areas will be capped at 50 percent of capacity.

Employees will be required to wear face masks; customers will also be encouraged to wear face masks, especially when entering and exiting a restaurant, or while waiting in line to use the bathroom, however the state guidance does not require it. Reservations are strongly suggested and will help limit the amount of customers gathering near entrances and host stands to wait to be seated. Roughly 50 percent of New Hampshire restaurants will be able to open under the current guidelines. (See New Hampshire’s full list of restaurant reopening guidelines here.)

Rhode Island

Rhode Island is taking a similar approach to New Hampshire with respect to reopening its restaurants to onsite diners. As of May 18, restaurants in the Ocean State are permitted to serve customers in outdoor dining areas. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said that restaurants will not be allowed to set up more than 20 tables and that parties will be limited to no more than five customers. Tables must be spaced at least eight feet apart. Restaurant workers are required to wear masks while working, and diners are required to wear masks while not eating. (See Rhode Island’s full reopening plan here.)

Connecticut

In Connecticut, which became the last state in the country to begin its reopening process when it began to ease restrictions on May 20, restaurants can reopen for outdoor dining service but must remain closed for dine-in service. All restaurant employees are required to wear face masks, and servers are required to wear gloves. The state has encouraged restaurants to use contactless payment options, as well as disposable menus. Restaurants are required to make hand sanitizer available at entrances, and tables must be spaced at least 6 feet apart. (See Connecticut’s exhaustive plan for restaurant reopening here.)

Maine

Maine, on the other hand, is taking a different approach than its New England cousins. For starters, Vacationland is the only state in New England that has permitted restaurants to reopen for dine-in service. But it is doing so on a county-by-county basis. Maine Gov. Janet Mills permitted restaurants in 12 rural counties to reopen for dine-in service on May 18 and could allow restaurants in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Penobscot, and York counties — which account for more than half of known COVID-19 cases in the state and are the only four counties with confirmed community transmission — on June 1.

Restaurants that do reopen for dine-in service are required to adhere to a strict list of guidelines, which includes spacing tables at least six feet apart; requiring call-ahead or online reservations to limit customers from congregating; and maintaining a list of customers for potential contact tracing. (See Maine’s full reopening plan here.)

Vermont

The lone outlier to this point is Vermont — restaurants in the Green Mountain State are still limited to takeout and delivery, like Massachusetts, but a timeline for the resumption of dine-in and outdoor service has not even been announced yet. This tracks, as Vermont has some of the strictest COVID-19 related restrictions in the country. Gov. Phil Scott may announce some information later this week. (See Vermont’s full reopening plan here.)

Where Restaurants Have Reopened Across the U.S. [E]
Is It Safe to Eat at Restaurants Yet? [E]
Georgia Governor Finally Releases Restaurant Guidelines Ahead of Monday’s Reopening Day [EATL]
Politics Drive Georgia’s Reopening Gamble as Coronavirus Cases Rise [G]
Massachusetts and Connecticut Become the Final States to Begin Reopening [CNN]
Massachusetts Restaurants Will Remain Closed for Dine-In Service Until at Least the Second Week of June [EBOS]
Massachusetts Restaurants Probably Won’t Reopen by May 18 — and Probably Shouldn’t [EBOS]
N.H. Restaurants Open to Limited Outdoor Dining Amid Coronavirus; Beaches Could Open June 1 [BG]
NH Restaurants Are Open for Outdoor Dining. Here’s What You Need to Know. [NBCBOS]
Outdoor Dining at RI Restaurants Allowed to Begin This Week [WPRI]
Workers Are Being Called Back to Restaurants Around Maine. Their Choice Can Be a Hard One. [BDN]
Where States Are Reopening After America’s Shutdown [WP]
Vermont Retail Businesses Reopening, With Restrictions [WHDH]
COVID-19 Coverage on Eater Boston [EBOS]

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