A little over three months have passed since Gov. Charlie Baker shut down Massachusetts restaurants, aside from takeout and delivery, to slow the spread of COVID-19. The initial measure was expected to last three weeks, not three months, but ultimately morphed into a long-term, multi-phase reopening plan for all industries. Now, reopening day is here for indoor dining.
First, outdoor dining returned on June 8, the start of phase two of the state’s reopening plan, under numerous restrictions regarding staff and customer safety protocols, physical distancing of tables, and more.
Baker said at the time that indoor dining could resume later in phase two — with each phase of the plan lasting three weeks or more, depending on how the coronavirus numbers were trending. On June 19, he announced that step two of phase two would begin on June 22, including indoor dining, offices at 50% capacity, retail dressing rooms by appointment, and several other industries and services.
Massachusetts, with about 107,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of June 21, is the final New England state to resume indoor dining; Connecticut and parts of Maine were the most recent areas to allow it again, both starting five days ago. After Massachusetts, Connecticut has the most confirmed cases in New England — almost 46,000 as of June 21, or fewer than half as many as Massachusetts.
For Massachusetts restaurants resuming indoor dining at this time, there are strict rules and guidelines to follow, including but not limited to the following:
- Tables must be at least six feet apart and six feet away from high-traffic areas, such as routes to the restroom, but the distance can be under six feet if there’s a non-porous barrier at least six feet high.
- Face coverings are required for employees as well as customers (unless a medical condition or disability makes this impossible), although customers can remove theirs when seated at a table; some restaurants are taking this a step further and requiring customers to keep masks on except while actively eating and drinking.
- No bar seating allowed — but bar areas can be reconfigured to allow for more table seating (following existing building and fire codes as well as the distancing rules).
- Gathering areas such as dance floors and pool tables must remain off-limits.
- If an employee, customer, or vendor of a restaurant has a presumed or positive case of COVID-19, the restaurant must immediately close for 24 hours and then must be cleaned and disinfected as instructed by current CDC guidance.
While some Boston-area restaurants plan to immediately resume indoor dining, many others are waiting to see what happens in the first few weeks — or simply waiting until they can fully reopen later this year. Owners of some smaller restaurants, for example, don’t see a point in reopening right away when the required table spacing would severely limit how many parties they can seat.
Anna Dicenso, co-owner of popular Italian destination Rino’s Place in East Boston, told Eater that the restaurant won’t reopen for dine-in service during phase two (and there’s no room for outdoor dining, either). The restaurant would only be able to fit about six tables inside under the current rules. “It’s just not worth it for us,” she said, looking forward to eventually returning “stronger than ever.” In the meantime, Rino’s is continuing to offer takeout.
In Cambridge, Bondir owner Jason Bond doesn’t think it’s likely that he’ll reopen his intimate, upscale restaurant for dine-in service until around September and October, “when we have a better idea of second-wave scenarios.”
“I am very confident in our team’s ability to operate safely,” Bond told Eater, “but I am not as confident in it being safe enough from the public perspective. We will keep a close eye on what numbers are doing and open our dining room as soon as we feel it is safe for us to do so.” In the meantime, the Bondir team is focusing on takeout and delivery.
Restaurants are in an extraordinarily difficult spot right now: Relief bills are crawling slowly through the government — and, in many cases, won’t provide enough help to save a restaurant. Most restaurants aren’t equipped to survive indefinitely on takeout and delivery alone, and the addition of some outdoor and/or indoor dining might help, but it might not be enough. (Many restaurants don’t even have the option of adding outdoor dining, despite Boston and other local cities and towns trying to make it easier.) Employees need to get back to work; the unemployment process has been difficult to access for many and impossible for others.
But restaurant owners are worried: Most other states around the country have already resumed indoor dining and some are seeing additional COVID-19 surges, or at least increases in case numbers in the weeks following the reopening of restaurants and other businesses and industries. Despite all the safety requirements — which vary widely from state to state, with some states not even mandating mask-wearing inside businesses — reopening restaurants still means putting people inside an enclosed space for a long period of time, with customers unmasked at least while eating and drinking, exposing each other (and employees, who are there for an even longer period) to potential illness.
In Dallas, a number of restaurants that recently reopened have shut down again following COVID-19 diagnoses among their employees. One bar even preemptively closed again after seeing the number of the city’s cases spiking. Texas restaurants have been reopening since May 1, with numbers of positive cases steadily rising in the state following the reopening of non-essential businesses and services.
Similarly, a number of Charleston restaurants had to shut down shortly after reopening after employees tested positive.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has threatened to revoke liquor licenses from bars and restaurants that aren’t enforcing social distancing measures. New York City hasn’t even allowed venues to reopen for outdoor dining yet, but violations of existing guidelines are reportedly rampant.
In Florida’s Miami-Dade county, Mayor Carlos Giménez is considering tightening restrictions back up as COVID-19 hospital cases rise and businesses are getting caught violating social distancing guidelines.
Here in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association has expressed excitement about the reopening, according to a statement from president and CEO Bob Luz. But Luz notes that the restricted seating levels will continue to pose a challenge for restaurants, urging customers to get out early in the week, “making Monday to Wednesday the new Saturday.”