How the new Massachusetts restaurant reopening rules will change the dining experience

From the waiting area to the table.

A masked server delivers lunch to a table at the Nuevo Vallarta Mexican Restaurant in Manchester, N.H., Monday, May 18, 2020. The restaurant, which closed their inside dining area in March due to business restrictions created by the COVID-19 virus outbreak, reopened Monday as New Hampshire restaurants were allowed to serve their customers with outdoor table service. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
A masked server delivers lunch to a table at the Nuevo Vallarta Mexican Restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire, where restaurants have already reopened for outdoor dining. –Charles Krupa / AP

Disposable menus. Closed bars. Ketchup and mustard only upon request.

Going out to eat in the coronavirus era will be a noticeably different experience when Massachusetts restaurants resume dine-in service in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan.

For the first time Friday afternoon, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration released rules and recommendations for when Bay Staters can return to restaurants, which have been restricted to delivery and takeout for nearly two-and-a-half months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restaurants will be able to start outdoor table service when Phase 2 begins, which the Baker administration will determine next Saturday, June 6 (the phases of the state’s reopening plan are each three weeks or more, depending on public health data). Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said Friday that the administration is working with lawmakers on a bill to streamline the local licensing process for outdoor dining.

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“You’re gonna see a lot of parking lots and other open spaces convert,” Baker said.

Indoor dining will be allowed to resume at a later point during Phase 2.

For both indoor and outdoor dining, restaurants will have to implement a myriad of social distancing and hygiene measures to limit the potential spread of the virus — not dissimilar to the standards that other New England states have imposed.

Still, from the moment customers arrive, they’ll see some distinct changes.

According to the Baker administration’s safety standards, restaurants are advised to establish one-way entrances and exits, and even directional hallways, if possible, similar to what many local grocery stores have done with their aisles to minimize contact between different groups

Customers will be prohibited from congregating or lingering in waiting rooms; reservations and call-ahead seating is encouraged.

The new standards says that tables must be spaced at least six feet away from each other, as well as from high traffic areas, such as bathrooms and entrances (unless they’re divided be a wall or divider).

Seating and service at bars will be closed, though bar areas may be repurposed to fit more seated tables (bars that only serve alcohol and do not have on-site kitchen areas won’t be allowed to reopen until Phase 3).

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Restaurant party sizes will be limited to six people, so any groups larger than that will be forced to break up into separate tables.

The new rules also prohibit self-serve stations often associated with fast-casual restaurants. Unattended buffets, topping bars, drink stations, and other communal serving areas must be closed.

The same goes for side amenities unrelated to food or beverage service; dance areas, pool tables, or other recreational offerings must be closed or removed.

The rules also ban reusable menus. Instead, restaurants have three options: they can provide customers paper menus that must be disposed of after each use; they can put up a digital display or chalkboard menu; or they can refer customers to view an electronic menu on their phone or other mobile device.

Similarly, pre-set refillable condiment containers will be banned. Things like ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, and salad dressing will only be provided upon request and in single-serving portions.

The rules ban pre-set utensils and place settings, which must be either single-use or sanitized between uses.

While tables must be spaced at least six feet apart, the standards implicitly acknowledge that restaurant employees — particularly servers — will necessarily have to break that minimum distancing threshold when taking orders and delivering food. The rules say that staffers must “minimize” the time spent within six feet of customers.

Baker’s statewide face covering order for businesses also remains in effect. However, while workers must wear a face covering “at all times,” customers are allowed to take off their masks while seated.

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“Patrons [must] wear their face covering coming into the restaurants and then moving about the restaurant if they need to use the facility,” Polito said Friday. “But while seated, they don’t need to wear their face covering, and they can enjoy the experience of dining out.”

That experience also doesn’t necessarily end when customers walk out the door. Under the new guidelines Friday, the Baker administration says restaurants should take the phone number of at least one person in a party for potential contact tracing purposes.

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