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Boston’s Restaurant Industry Faces the Lifting of Restrictions on May 29 With Mixed Emotions

Some restaurant owners and workers are eager to get back to pre-pandemic normal, but others aren’t quite ready to abandon masks and distancing

Stock photograph of a chef in a restaurant kitchen TheBigPineapple/Getty Images

As of Saturday, May 29, Massachusetts will lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions, including its face-covering order. Restaurants will no longer be required to space tables 6 feet apart, removing whatever capacity caps still existed, and limits on party size and reservation time will be rescinded.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration advised unvaccinated people to continue masking and socially distancing in most situations, but there will be no official guidelines for such behavior. An honor system will be put into place where (temporary) legislation once existed, meaning that restaurants will be free to operate much in the way they did before the pandemic. If the operator of a particular restaurant wishes to keep a mask mandate in place for their dining room, or to continue enforcing social-distancing rules, they are free to do so.

Eater communicated with more than a dozen Boston-area restaurant operators and workers, and, unsurprisingly, got more than a dozen different impressions about the state’s decision to lift the remaining pandemic restrictions. Some are ready to get back to some version of pre-pandemic normal, while others prefer a slower transition, whether that includes keeping everyone masked or just staff. (One compared the abrupt shift to the “frog in boiling water” fable.)

Anthony Caldwell, the chef and owner of 50 Kitchen in Dorchester, says he’s nervous about the lifting of the mask mandate because it allows people who aren’t vaccinated to behave in a way that he doesn’t think is safe.

“It creates an honor system, and we know there are a lot of people who aren’t honest,” Caldwell says. He adds that he’s nervous about another surge in infections and plans to keep a number of pandemic guidelines in place, including the 90-minute dining limit.

Saus, likewise, is keeping its mask requirement for staff as well as customers at its locations in downtown Boston and Somerville’s Bow Market, according to co-owner Tanya Walker. The Somerville location won’t reopen indoor dining yet. Instead, the restaurant is taking full advantage of the availability of outdoor seating at Bow Market, and everything will be served to go. In Boston, Saus plans to take a buffer week before bringing back indoor dining to see how the area — quiet amid downtown office closures during the pandemic — comes back to life. Customers will be allowed to remove masks only when seated. “Our staff is still not 100 percent vaccinated, so their safety is our priority,” Walker says. “We have had conversations with our team and made resources available to aid them in getting appointments. We are paying sick time to get COVID shots.”

The Saus team will revisit its plan weekly as conditions change; Walker doesn’t yet have a timeline for ending the mask requirement.

“We will be taking the whole team’s opinions into the decision-making process,” Walker says. “If one person isn’t comfortable, we won’t be loosening requirements.”

Allie Coppola is a bartender at Brick & Mortar in Cambridge. She says that she’s excited to be working in a bar full of people again — a vibe she’s missed quite a bit — but admitted that she would have preferred it if the state took a slower, more cautious approach to reopening. “My preference is that people still wear masks when talking to servers and bartenders,” Coppola says. “It’s almost a sign of respect at this point.” Coppola also says she’ll miss the 90-minute reservation limit because it was one thing that she and other hospitality workers could control during a year that was otherwise out of control.

Humar Miranda, who also bartends at Brick & Mortar, says he and other staff members he’s spoken with feel comfortable going back to work amid the lifting of restrictions because they’re all vaccinated. Still, he thinks it would have been smart for the state to keep the mask mandate in place for a bit longer. “Everyone is already so used to it, so why not just continue to wear masks until everyone is comfortable, at least at first?”

Brick & Mortar owner Gary Strack says he won’t require customers to wear masks once the mandate has been dropped, but he is requiring everyone on his staff to be vaccinated; employees may choose to wear a mask if they’d like. Since the bar reopened almost two months ago, Strack says his bartenders haven’t gotten much pushback about the mask mandate, mostly because the restaurant put a system in place to nip such issues in the bud at the door.

However, on the occasions when there has been pushback, “The question you ask is, ‘Are these people truly ignorant of the restrictions, or are they just doing what they want to do?’” Strack says. “People would show up with a group of 10 and be flabbergasted when we told them they couldn’t all sit together.”

Now that the guidelines are being lifted, Strack is excited to implement some of the changes he made at Brick & Mortar in the past couple months. He says it won’t be a standing room-only spot with people stacked six deep at the bar. He plans to keep some degree of distancing in place, which he thinks will allow for his bar staff to better connect with customers. Strack is also happy that he and his staff no longer have to do the work of guideline enforcement. “For everyone in the industry, the concept of being a cop is antithetical to hospitality.”

Strack’s sentiments were echoed by Alcove owner Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli. “From an operational standpoint, the most challenging thing about the guidelines is that they created tension between hospitality workers and guests,” he says. “Hospitality had to act outside the realm of hospitality, and that’s been very uncomfortable.”

Schlesinger-Guidelli says that “enforcement fatigue” has taken an emotional toll on his staff. He says that with every new guideline, he and his staff were trying to thread the needle between hospitality and keeping everyone safe. He plans to allow customers to go maskless, while requiring his staff to continue to wear masks until at least June 15, when the state of emergency is scheduled to expire.

At the Cushman Concepts restaurants O Ya, Hojoko, and Bianca, employees will also remain masked until at least June 15, at which point a decision will be made whether to extend that policy. “Though the majority of our staff are vaccinated, Baker’s announcement to lift all restrictions came as a shock to many on our staff,” events and marketing manager Stephen Martino says. “It’s about making sure our people still feel comfortable coming to work, whether they chose to get vaccinated or not.”

“With staffing levels at their lowest, it’s hard not to look at the coming tidal wave of eager guests with mixed feelings,” he says. “Yes, we are so, so excited to have people back. But after having worked under these conditions for over a year, we can’t just fling the doors open and pretend it’s 2019 again. Many restaurant workers are physically and mentally exhausted as a result.”

Martino says that staff will need time to readjust. “We are asking guests to be kind and patient with us while we navigate the many difficulties that came from the pandemic, difficulties that will far outlive the state’s restrictions.”

Kate Smith, who operates Thistle & Leek in Newton with her husband Trevor, says the restaurant plans to follow the new state and CDC mandates and will not require diners to wear masks, though they are welcome to do so if they prefer. Thistle & Leek staff will continue to wear masks for now, however. “We are glad to be moving more towards normal, for the good of our guests and for our team,” Smith says.

Somerville’s Daddy Jones, on the other hand, will not require staff — who are all vaccinated — to wear masks, says owner Dimitra Murphy, but the restaurant isn’t reopening for indoor dining yet. “We trusted the science to shut down, and now we have to trust the science to reopen,” Murphy says. In addition to keeping all dining outdoors, Daddy Jones also sees less interaction between customers and staff than in pre-pandemic times, thanks to a switch to online ordering; it’s essentially a counter-service restaurant now.

For Katie Daly, who manages Renegade’s Pub in East Boston, Saturday is cause for anxiety. Renegade’s has been open for the vast majority of the pandemic, and Daly has had to play mask enforcer for most of that time.

“Customers had an air of anger because they’d been trapped inside for so long,” Daly says. “I had to enforce [the mask mandate], and it pissed a lot of people off.” And that was when the mandate still existed. “Now I can’t say much. Don’t get in someone else’s personal space, and don’t get mad at me for not wanting to take my mask off.”

Daly thinks that the lifting of restrictions was abrupt and fears that once people are no longer mandated by the state to behave in a certain way with regard to masking, they’re going to do whatever they want. She’ll continue to wear a mask until she’s feels comfortable taking it off, whenever that may be.

Additional reporting by Rachel Leah Blumenthal