In Mass., guidance lets restaurants, lodging prep for new normal

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The restaurant and hospitality industries will need to wait another week to learn when they can reopen or expand pandemic-affected operations, and once they do, business will look significantly different.

Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito outlined near-term changes Friday that the two industries — they are among those hit hardest by the pandemic and the shutdowns it prompted — will need to make as they chart a path forward to find a new normal while abiding by mandatory safety requirements.

When they begin offering dine-in meals, restaurants will need to screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms, space out customers, prevent seating at bars and cap party sizes. Hotels and motels will not be allowed to open up function spaces once they start accepting guests, and will also need to keep people as far apart as possible.

"As we move forward in reopening our economy, we understand the importance of balancing public health and economic health, and we need to do everything we can to support both," Polito said at a news conference.

On Monday, Baker will issue an executive order enabling businesses covered by the second phase of the administration's reopening plan to bring employees back to workplaces for preparation and training.

Restaurants have been limited to takeout and delivery during widespread public shutdowns to limit transmission of the deadly coronavirus. Almost two weeks ago the administration indicated that restaurants could expand operations alongside lodging starting in phase two, but the specific date of that phase still is not clear.

Baker said he will announce June 6 when phase two will begin. The earliest that phase two could start is June 8.

While the public health and virus numbers next week will determine whether the administration believes that target can be hit, Baker said Friday that the underlying metrics, such as the percentage of tests with positive results and current hospitalizations, "keep trending in the right direction."

"Just because we're gradually reopening the economy doesn't mean that we should let up on all those key practices that we can all do on a daily basis and had so much to do with getting us to where we are now," he said at his daily news conference.

"The more we all do with this, the more likely we are to continue to move forward and back toward something more like what we used to call normal."

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Through Friday, state officials confirmed 95,512 cases of COVID-19 and 6,718 deaths linked to the virus since the outbreak began.

The weighted seven-day average of positive test rates has dropped by almost three-fourth since April 15, while the three-day average of deaths are down nearly two-thirds in the same span.

"This is the only and best way we have to beat the virus to get our businesses and our routines back to something like normal," the governor said. "And thanks in large part to everybody's cooperation, we've made real progress in fighting COVID."

The administration released industry-specific guidelines for restaurants and lodging Friday to set expectations ahead of the shift. For both, business will not return to pre-pandemic norms.

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Restaurants will be able to host outdoor dining at the beginning of phase two and indoor dining an unspecified amount of time later in the stage. Polito said she and Baker are working with the Legislature to "streamline the process for local permitting" for restaurants that did not previously place tables outside.

"I would fully expect that you're going to see, if we can get this worked out with the Legislature, you're going to see a lot of parking lots and other kinds of open spaces convert, which I think would be perfectly appropriate," Baker said.

Mandatory safety requirements that restaurants face include limiting tables to six guests at most, placing tables 6 feet away from each other, and offering single-use menus whenever possible. Employees will be required to cover their faces at all times, as will customers who are not yet seated.

Any restaurant that detects a presumptive or positive COVID-19 case must immediately close for 24 hours for cleaning and disinfecting before reopening.

Hotels and other lodging businesses face similar requirements to keep patrons and employees socially distant. When possible, Polito said, managers should place 24-hour buffer periods between room rentals to allow for deep cleaning, and workers should inform any travelers that state health officials recommend quarantining for 14 days after arriving from out of state.

Asked if the administration recommended travelers book an additional two weeks before their stays to allow for that quarantine period, Baker replied, "The guidance we have there is consistent with the guidance that almost every other state in New England, and frankly in the northeast has right now, and I think part of that is just about being consistent with where everybody else has been."

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Economic damage from the pandemic has been widespread, and food service and hospitality have been acutely impacted. Last week, state labor officials reported that 61 percent of jobs in leisure and hospitality in March were cut in April, a far higher percentage than any other industry.

Despite the strain many face, it remains unclear to what degree business will return once doors open. A poll released this month by WGBH, The Boston Globe and Suffolk University found that almost 55 percent of Massachusetts residents would not be comfortable eating out once it was allowed. About one-third would remain uncomfortable doing so if there were an effective treatment but not a vaccine for COVID-19.

The National Federation of Independent Business, an industry group representing more than 5,000 employers in Massachusetts, criticized the lack of a certain date for restaurants to reopen. NFIB Massachusetts State Director Christopher Carlozzi said New Hampshire and Rhode Island already allow some form of in-person dining.

"Restaurants provide hundreds of thousands of jobs in Massachusetts and those business owners need to know as soon as possible a hard date of when they will be allowed to reopen to customers," Carlozzi said. "The very gradual steps make it difficult to prepare and plan. We've already heard about too many restaurants closing their doors for good because they were shut down for so long."

Baker said his forthcoming executive order also will outline in greater detail which sections of the statewide economy fall into which part of the gradual ramp-up and will allow professional sports teams to practice in Massachusetts facilities.

The major leagues have not resumed live games, although a plan is in place to begin the National Hockey League playoffs.

Baker said he hopes opening practice facilities "will help make that happen a little sooner," lamenting the monotony of watching replays of games.

"There's just so many times you can actually watch the Patriots beat the Falcons, or the Celtics beat the Lakers, or the Bruins beat the Canucks, or the Red Sox beat the Yankees, or the Cardinals, or the Angels," Baker said. "At some point it's got to be live."

"For all of us, live sports, and especially pro sports, would be a great thing to see again, because not only will it be a significant milestone for those of us who are fans, but it will also send a big signal that we've continued to do all the things that we need to do to contain and control the virus and keep it in check," he said.


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