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Restaurant dining is coming back to Massachusetts, but the experience will be different from what people enjoyed before the coronavirus pandemic.
Servers' smiles must be covered by masks, and tables have to be spaced at least 6 feet apart or separated by barriers. There will be no congregating at the bar, and all seating must be outdoors, in the short term.
"The ventilation, obviously, outdoors is a lot better than the ventilation indoors," Gov. Charlie Baker said at a Friday news conference where he and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who co-chairs the state's reopening advisory board, detailed new rules for restaurants.
"It will give people a chance to figure out how to work between the tables, with respect to the degree of the spacing, and we also got a lot of positive feedback from our colleagues in other states that started with outdoor first," Baker added.
He did not set a reopening date, but restaurants could serve sit-down meals again as soon as June 8, if the state's four-phase recovery plan follows the best-case scenario. Baker said he will decide on June 6 whether the second phase can begin two days later.
The state's new guidelines urge restaurants to take reservations to prevent crowding in waiting areas.
Diners, limited to groups of six, must wear masks in common areas but can remove them when seated at tables.
A renewed ability to serve patrons on site may come as a relief to some restaurants that have been limited to takeout and delivery for almost three months. But the restrictions are so tight that reopening may remain impractical or even impossible for others.
Restaurateur Irene Li told WBUR earlier this month that welcoming diners back to Mei Mei, her Asian fusion eatery in Boston, likely won't be financially worthwhile right away. The governor's announcement Friday confirmed her prediction.
"Our business is about 30% catering, and that's what makes the in-house dining model work," Li said after Baker's news conference. "We know that catering revenue is gone, and it's not coming back. So, being at partial capacity, doing just outdoor dining — really not an option for us."
Nick Varano, who owns three restaurants in the North End, agreed that opening at reduced capacity probably won't be profitable. But he plans to welcome back diners anyway, hoping the move will pay off later.
"Is it going to be like it was before, at first? No," Varano said. "But, you pay your bills, your employees get to make some money, and you get your customers and clients coming back to see you."
By allowing outdoor restaurant service, Massachusetts is catching up to neighboring New Hampshire, which has permitted dining al fresco for two weeks.
"It has been a little bit of an epiphany to see how much people want to eat outside," said Tuscan Kitchen founder Joe Faro, who owns restaurants in both states and has been serving guests in New Hampshire.
Still, he added, "I don't think a lot of restaurant companies are going to be profitable in 2020. At least, we are not going to be profitable in 2020."
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