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What Are Massachusetts’s COVID-19 Rules for Restaurants and Bars Right Now?

A basic breakdown of the regulations for Massachusetts restaurants, bars, workers, and patrons during the COVID-19 pandemic

A restaurant server wearing a mask places a table setting on a table in an empty dining room Shutterstock/David Tadevosian

Update, May 19, 2021: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced on May 17 that the state will lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions — including the mask mandate — on May 29. Baker also said that he will lift the state of emergency, which has been in place since March 10, 2020, by June 15.

“The Department of Public Health will issue a new face covering advisory consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidance,” said a statement from the Baker administration. The CDC’s latest guidance on masking states that fully vaccinated people can resume activities without masking or physically distancing “except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.”

Even as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, unvaccinated people should continue to socially distance, and should continue to wear masks in most situations. Individual restaurants will be allowed to continue to require diners to wear masks (although that creates a bit of a nightmare for restaurant workers, who have been at the front line of mask enforcement since the onset of the pandemic, and are suffering from fatigue as a result).

In addition to mask requirements, restaurants will no longer be required to space tables six feet apart, limits on party sizes will be lifted, and the 90-minute reservation limit will be rescinded.

The latest CDC guidance for vaccinated diners during the COVID-19 outbreak is here; dining out still carries risks for unvaccinated diners and workers. Please be aware of changing local rules, and check individual restaurant websites for any additional restrictions such as mask requirements. Find a local vaccination site here.

As it became clear in March 2020 that COVID-19 was spreading through Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the state would shut down its restaurants for onsite dining for at least three weeks. Three weeks turned into three months, and restaurants in the state were permitted to reopen for outdoor dining only on June 8, 2020, provided they followed a lengthy list of guidelines, including new cleaning protocols, distancing of tables, and making transactions as contact-free as possible.

It’s hard to believe this now, given that the state’s restaurants have been open in one capacity or another since last June, but Massachusetts was among the final two states to begin that initial reopening process. When the state eventually allowed restaurants to reopen indoors, it implemented 50 percent capacity caps on dining rooms and issued another lengthy list of strict health and safety guidelines.

In the months that have passed since restaurants first reopened, COVID-19 guidance has shifted and changed many times. Baker signed a bill in July 2020 permitting bars and restaurants to sell beer, wine, and cocktails to go with takeout and delivery orders. A post-Thanksgiving spike of COVID-19 cases statewide forced the state legislature to shrink dining room capacities to 25 percent in December; improved infection data informed the state’s decision to expand dining room capacities to 40 percent less than a month later. And as of March 1, there are no percentage-based capacity caps on restaurants.

In short, a lot has happened regarding dining and restaurants since March 17, 2020, and sometimes it can be hard to keep up, but this is where things stand at the moment. (For a full list of the state’s current COVID-19 guidelines for restaurants, see this checklist.)

What are the capacity limits for restaurants?

There are no percentage-based capacity limits for restaurants at the moment.

Is indoor seating allowed at restaurants right now?

Yes, but the state encourages restaurants to focus onsite service on outdoor dining whenever possible. All seated table service must be limited to 90 minutes, and party size cannot exceed six diners. (The party size limit will increase to 10 diners on May 29, as long as public health and vaccination data continue to trend in the right direction.)

Additionally, tables must be positioned at least six feet apart from all other tables, unless they are separated by protective, nonporous barriers (walls or plexiglass dividers, for example) that are at least six feet high. That said, dining out still carries risks (the lion’s share of which are shouldered by restaurant workers), and diners are encouraged to only gather with members of their own household.

Am I required to wear a mask?

Yes. Diners and workers must wear face coverings at all times, except in cases where an individual is unable to wear one due to a medical condition or disability. Diners can only remove face coverings when they are in the act of eating or drinking. Wearing a mask is important because it helps protect people around you. COVID-19 spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets, which travel through the air when people cough, sneeze, shout, talk, or sing.

Studies show that when masks are worn correctly (which is to say over the nose and mouth, and snugly against the side of the face without gaps) they provide a barrier that helps prevent the spread of respiratory droplets from one person to another. It is especially important to wear masks indoors, and around people you do not live with (restaurant dining rooms being a prime example).

Should I sit indoors?

Eating indoors is still considered risky, because it requires diners to remove their masks in an enclosed space with limited airflow. Some restaurants have taken steps to improve ventilation in their dining rooms, but it’s hard to judge the efficacy of those measures. The facts are the facts: Many people contract COVID-19 through airborne transmission, and no safety measure or state-mandated guideline can make indoor dining perfectly safe while COVID-19 continues to spread in Massachusetts. If you’re worried about catching COVID-19, it’s probably best to stick to takeout and delivery, or to sit outdoors, which is generally considered safer.

What about outdoor dining?

Most restaurants in the state ceased outdoor dining during the winter — because of the cold, and for safety and snow removal purposes — but as the warm weather returns, restaurants are beginning to reopen patios. The Massachusetts restaurant checklist currently states that restaurants “will be allowed to maximize outdoor dining space, including patios and parking lots where available, where municipal approval is obtained.” Restaurants and patrons must follow the same guidelines for outdoor dining as indoor dining, but outdoor dining allowances will be made by individual municipalities, not the state.

Last spring, some cities and towns pedestrianized entire streets to make room for outdoor dining, and others made outdoor dining available for the first time. Before the pandemic, restaurant operators in Boston were required to go through a lengthy process, including a public hearing as well as meetings with various neighborhood groups, whenever they wanted to make seating modifications. Last spring, the city’s licensing board voted unanimously to make it easier for restaurants to create outdoor spaces, something it is doing again this year. Indeed, the program resumed on March 22.

But please note: While there is a general consensus that outdoor dining is safer than indoor dining, there are still risks involved with the former. Masks still have to come off for eating and drinking; small outdoor tables and patios often don’t allow for proper social distancing, especially while meeting with friends or family from another household; and if alcohol is involved, people tend to let their guards down.

What about bars?

Bars are a bit more complicated. Bar seating is permitted, but there are certain guidelines, in addition to those outlined above, that must be followed. Diners may sit at a bar if it does not function as an active workstation, or if a bar’s employees are working at least six feet away. Alternatively, diners may sit at a bar if there is a physical barrier (plexiglass, most commonly) that separates them from the bar’s workspace. The physical barrier must be at least 30 inches high, and the window through which food and drink is passed must be no higher than eight inches from the bar top. Diners are not allowed to stand at bars and gather as they might have pre-pandemic, and parties must be seated at least six feet apart.

To this point, bars that don’t serve food have not been allowed to reopen. That will change on May 29, however: As long as public health and vaccination data are still trending in the right direction, bars, beer gardens, breweries, wineries, and distilleries that have not already been allowed to reopen will return. Those businesses will be subject to the same rules as restaurants (seated service only, 90-minute time limits, face covering requirements, maximum group size of 10 people, no dance floors, etc.).

Boston is taking a slower approach than the rest of the state with regard to bars, beer gardens, breweries, wineries, and distilleries — such establishments won’t be permitted to reopen in the city until June 19, though the same rules will be in place. Mayor Kim Janey explained the decision in a Twitter thread, writing: “The timeline for Boston’s continued reopening allows three weeks of additional time to vaccinate vulnerable residents, accommodate dense neighborhoods, and support complex business districts.”

Can I purchase alcohol?

Yes. Restaurants and bars may sell alcohol with takeout and delivery orders, and alcoholic beverages may be consumed on site alongside food that is also prepared at the establishment. And come May 29, restaurants, bars, beer gardens, breweries, wineries, and distilleries will no longer be required to serve food with alcohol, as long as public health and vaccination data continue to trend in the right direction.

Is there a curfew?

Not anymore. Baker enacted a statewide stay-at-home advisory and early business closure order in November 2020 that required restaurants to close by 9:30 p.m., but it was lifted on January 25, 2021.

What about live performances?

Restaurants can welcome singers back for live indoor performances on May 10, with strict distancing guidelines in place. That said, the City of Boston is waiting until June 1 to allow live performances at restaurants to resume.

Is it safe to dine out if you’ve been vaccinated?

Diners who have been vaccinated should still follow public health guidance from the CDC, and must still wear masks while dining out. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests COVID-19 vaccines may reduce transmission of the virus, but that does not mean people should let their guard down just yet. For more on dining out after getting vaccinated, read this.

Should I make a reservation?

Reservations are encouraged but not mandatory at many establishments. According to the state’s website, it is incumbent on restaurant operators to ensure diners waiting for their table to be ready do not congregate in groups or form lines outside.

What about contact tracing?

The state’s restaurant checklist encourages restaurants to obtain phone numbers for contact tracing when taking reservations or seating walk-in diners. Understanding when and where outbreaks happen is an important tool to combat further community spread, so don’t be alarmed — or make a fuss — if a restaurant asks for contact information.

What about worker safety measures?

Restaurant workers are more at risk for contracting COVID-19 than diners. As such, restaurant operators should ensure they are doing everything they can to keep their workers safe. (Especially given that restaurant workers only became eligible for the vaccine on March 22, meaning that it will still take some time before the majority of the industry is fully vaccinated.)

Restaurants are required to provide workers with the most up-to-date safety training regarding social distancing, hand washing, face coverings, and self-screening, as well as making sure employees are doing COVID-19 symptom checks, staying home if sick, and seeking medical attention when appropriate. Restaurants also must provide employees with personal protective equipment and sufficient cleaning supplies.

Restaurants should also stagger shifts to minimize contact between workers, and reduce congestion at entrances and exits. Restaurants must screen workers for COVID-19 before each shift, and must send workers home if they are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19, or have had close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. If a restaurant worker has been diagnosed with COVID-19, they should disclose this information to their employer, so the restaurant can be disinfected and contact-tracing protocols can be followed.

Are restaurants required to disclose positive cases to the public?

If a restaurant operator is informed of a positive COVID-19 case inside their business, they must immediately notify their local board of health and then assist in contact tracing efforts. (This is why it’s so important to provide contact tracing information when dining out.) The local board of health may require the restaurant to test all of its workers for COVID-19 before it can resume operations. The restaurant operator should also follow the current CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting their facility in the event of a positive COVID-19 case.

What can workers and customers do if a business isn’t complying with the state’s COVID-19 guidelines?

They can contact their local health department or submit the state’s COVID Safe Practices Concern Form.

What are the consequences for noncompliance?

There is a list of several consequences for restaurants and bars that are found to be noncompliant with the state’s COVID-19, from the less severe — a $300 fine — to the more severe — the cancellation of its liquor license. See the full list here.

This is all subject to change at any moment. Keep an eye on the state’s restaurant safety standards and checklist for the most up-to-date information. This post will be updated as guidelines change.

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