Coronavirus

Massachusetts bars moved to the last phase of the state’s reopening plan

But the change might not mean quite as much as you think.

Asia Mei, owner of Moonshine 152, stands in the restaurant's doorway in April. John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

Gov. Charlie Baker says industries in Massachusetts have “pretty much” remained in the same phases of the state’s reopening plan as they were when the four-phase approach to easing coronavirus restrictions was first detailed last month.

But there is one notable exception.

Last week, the administration quietly moved bars without food service from Phase 3 to Phase 4 in the latest revision of the reopening plan, grouping them in the same category as dance clubs, night clubs, and other large venues where the risk of spreading COVID-19 is greatest.

“The big issue with respect to bars is coming up with a model that we believe can actually be done safely,” Baker said during a press briefing Tuesday at the New Balance factory in Lawrence, noting that other states around the country that have “moved forward very aggressively” with their reopening plans have “started to see a pretty significant rise in new cases.”

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“We’re going to work very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen here in Massachusetts,” the governor said.

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The change came as officials clarified that establishments permitted to serve food and technically categorized as restaurants — including breweries, wineries, beer gardens, and many places that might colloquially be known as “bars” — could reopen for outdoor dining at the start of Phase 2, which began Monday. Indoor dining will be able to resume during a later date in Phase 2, under a number of restrictions. During Phase 2, restaurants that are allowed to reopen are still required to keep bar seating and service closed.

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However, places without licenses to serve food must wait to reopen until Phase 4, which officials refer to as the “new normal” when a vaccine or effective treatment has been developed for COVID-19. In other words, don’t expect Phase 4 to come with the same speed as the three-week turnaround that occurred between Phase 1 and Phase 2.

Bob Luz, the president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, told Boston.com that there are far less alcohol-only establishments than there used to be; most bars are licensed to serve food in at least some capacity, even if that’s not what they’re known for.

Still, bar areas within the restaurants that reopen have to remain closed during Phase 2 or be repurposed for seating. And the change will have an effect on VFW posts and corner pubs that only have liquor licenses. The MRA has subsequently been advising such bar owners to work with local officials to get a food permit, if they don’t already have one.

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“If that is what is going to be the difference between a Phase 2 opening and a Phase 4 opening, I would do what I could to get open in Phase 2,” Stephen Clark, the vice president of government affairs for the industry group, told the State House News Service, which first noted the change this week.

Luz noted that obtaining a food permit from local officials is relatively easy. Plus, serving alcohol with food is a recommended best practice, he added.

“Bring in a hot dog machine,” Luz said. “Bring in charcuterie and cheese.”

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