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Boston businesses bid farewell to vaccine mandate, but some still check vax cards

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Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, in a file photo from 2017. The Huntington will continue to require vaccines to see performances even though Boston has lifted its mandate, a spokesperson said. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, in a file photo from 2017. The Huntington will continue to require vaccines to see performances even though Boston has lifted its mandate, a spokesperson said. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Row 34 owner Jeremy Sewall was relieved as he looked around his Fort Point seafood restaurant and saw the dining room was packed for Saturday brunch.

Aside from staff wearing masks, it looked like a scene before the pandemic.

"People are happy and the tables aren't spread apart," Sewall said. "I mean, it's feeling more normal every single day."

And for businesses like Row 34, the city just took one big step toward returning to normal: Mayor Michelle Wu lifted the mandate Friday that required people to prove their vaccination status to visit restaurants, fitness centers and entertainment venues.

Wu cited improving public health data for making the move possible. As of last week, Boston's positive test rate, adult intensive care unit bed occupancy and number of daily hospitalizations have all dropped below benchmarks Wu's administration set for eliminating the proof-of-vaccination policy.

COVID policies are also dialing down this month in cities and towns across Greater Boston and statewide. The Baker administration loosened mask guidance for fully vaccinated people in public spaces last week.

Row 34 diners Dakota Corain and Chris Hutchins said they were happy to see Boston's mandate end.

"I didn't even bring my mask today," Hutchins said with a laugh.

Dr. Shira Doron, hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, also welcomed Wu's decision.

"There could be another variant around the corner at any moment that could throw off our progress, but we have to give people a break so we don't lose their trust," Doron said.

Doron argued that vaccine mandates won't necessarily stop the virus from spreading, because even vaccinated people can become infected — though vaccines generally provide strong protection against serious illness and death. She said raising vaccination rates should be the priority, rather than policies that aim to tamp down transmission.

She said she believes all of us will get COVID at some point.

"I am not a risk-taker, but I have come to terms long ago that we are going to have to get COVID," Doron said. "So when you do get it, you want to meet it with as much immunity as possible under your belt."

Massachusetts has one of the country's highest vaccination rates. Roughly 77% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated and 95% have received at least one dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even still, not every Boston business is ready to relax its rules.

Temple Gill, director of public affairs with the Huntington Theatre Company, said relaxing the vaccine requirement is good news for the city. However the Huntington will continue to require vaccines to see performances, as it has done since reopening in August.

Surveys have shown precautions make patrons feel safer, Gill said, adding they put staff and performers at ease, too.

"We have actors onstage who, to do their jobs, have to take their masks off in a room full of strangers," Gill said. "Everyone wearing a mask, everyone showing proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, means we're doing everything we can to keep these artists safe."

At Row 34, Sewall said most people had proof of their shots at the ready while Boston's mandate was in place. But the restaurant did have to turn some patrons away.

He said he's excited to start thinking about what operating his restaurants will look like post-COVID. For the past two years, Sewall has had to constantly think about the virus when running his restaurant. Are any staff members sick? Does he need to post any new COVID signs? Are the tables the right distance apart?

"All of this minutia that went into running the business that made it no fun and really difficult," Sewall said.

Sewall said he hopes the city's mask mandate will be the next restriction the mayor relaxes. Wu said she and her staff are now studying that policy's future.

This segment aired on February 20, 2022.

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Amanda Beland Twitter Producer/Director
Amanda Beland is a producer and director for Radio Boston. She also reports for the WBUR newsroom.

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