Mass. restaurants can resume limited indoor service Monday

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BOSTON — Restaurants that have been serving patrons on patios and sidewalks for the past two weeks will be able to welcome diners indoors beginning Monday as Gov. Charlie Baker announced Friday that he was triggering the next stage of his economic reopening plan.

In the midst of a heat wave, no less.

Baker, at a Statehouse news conference, also said offices would be able to bring back to work more employees and increase their capacity from one-quarter to 50 percent of their workforce. And close-contact personal services offered at nail salons, massage and tattoo parlors and personal training also can resume Monday.

The progress through the phases of the Baker administration's reopening strategy comes as Massachusetts has continued to see downward trends in hospitalizations, which now are fewer than 1,000, and positive test rates, which have fallen to 2.3 percent.

"Reopening Massachusetts is working," Baker said. "Business is coming back, people are regaining that sense of purpose that was lost. I know it can't happen fast enough, but people in Massachusetts are proving that we can reopen and continue to bring the fight to the virus when we all do our part."

Baker, though, urged people to continue to socially distance, wear masks and practice proper hygiene, and said that if people can still work from home, they should "for a little longer" to limit crowding on public transit. He said he was leaving in place the current work-from-home structure for executive branch government employees.

"We should keep in mind that COVID doesn't take the summer off. We cannot nor should we become complacent," Baker said, noting spikes in cases and hospitalizations in other parts of the country.

Baker entered Massachusetts into the second phase of his reopening plan June 8, but divided it into two parts. While some businesses have had to wait two weeks longer to reopen than they expected, restaurants were allowed to start with outdoor dining, and now are transitioning to full service.

The rules for indoor dining do not include capacity limitations, but do require tables to be 6 feet apart from each other and for parties to be limited to six or fewer guests. Also, seating is prohibited at the bar.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said the move into the second part of phase two also means clothing retailers can open fitting rooms by appointment.

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To assist with reopening, Polito also announced a new $225,000 grant program for nonprofits and community organizations to apply for up to $25,000 to help restaurants and other businesses set up outdoor seating and sidewalk retail.

The application process for grants through the new Resurgent Places program, as well as the previously announced $5 million Shared Streets and Spaces program for municipalities, will open Monday, Polito said.

Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance spokesman Paul Craney said Friday's move was welcomed, but it leaves Massachusetts behind other states.

"Despite today's positive announcement from the Governor, Massachusetts is becoming well known for being far behind the curve compared to the rest of New England," Craney said. "If you are a small business owner in Massachusetts, you have to wait the longest to reopen. That's the message business owners, their workers, and customers constantly hear from the Governor and today's announcement reaffirmed this."

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Craney said businesses like gyms, indoor recreation and theaters need more information about what to expect in phase three, which, Baker said,  he was delaying until at least early July.

"The introduction of additional surprise sub-phases and shifting businesses to phase four should not continue going forward," Craney said, referring to how bars quietly were moved from phase 3 to phase 4.

When Baker initially rolled out his four-phase reopening plan, he said each phase would last a minimum of three weeks. He stuck to that schedule when he entered phase two June 8, but the wait for phase three will be longer.

Baker said he wants at least two weeks of data from indoor dining before deciding on the next step, which would push the reopening of gyms, movie theaters and other larger indoor spaces beyond June 29.

National Federation of Independent Businesses of Massachusetts Director Christopher Carlozzi said small businesses had been "extremely disappointed" when Baker carved the second phase into two parts.

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"Outdoor dining proved overly restrictive with many eateries lacking adequate outdoor space and becoming dependent on favorable weather conditions," Carlozzi said in a statement. "Hopefully consumers will once again choose to dine in some of the fine eating establishments around the Commonwealth and help one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic."

Though Baker acknowledged the frustration and financial pain being felt by many small-business owners, he said the sacrifices being made now are in an attempt to avoid or reduce the impact of a second wave, or "echo," in the fall.

That's why, the governor said, he continues to invest in testing and contact tracing to make sure the positive progress made in containing the virus so far doesn't reverse itself.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said that the administration was rolling out a digital awareness campaign to promote testing, and will begin taking applications from providers who either can run new testing sites, or provide mobile testing options in places where testing has been more scarce.

The state also added a page to its website, mass.gov/gettested, that will provide information on testing with a link to the state's locator to find the most convenient site.

Friday also was the final day for free testing at the more than 50 pop-up sites set up by the administration to make tests available to people who recently had been in large gatherings, including any of the more than 300 protests of police brutality around the state that attracted 100 people or more.

Sudders said that, since Wednesday, nearly 16,000 people had been tested at these sites, and she expected results in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, Sudders said later Friday that the state would release new data on the reach of COVID-19 into communities of colors, with more comprehensive race and ethnic data on infections and recommendations on how to mitigate the impact.

The state's crisis standards of care, which were developed in anticipation of the surge this spring, also have been rescinded. Those guidelines were intended to standardize decisions about who gets access to lifesaving treatment, like a ventilator, if a hospital were to become overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and run short on supplies and staff.


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