Massachusetts eases COVID-19 seating rules for restaurants

Sitting at the bar is now allowed. But standing around it is not.

Boston -04/22/2020-Asia Mei, owner of Moonshine 152 restaurant stands in her doorway. She has been shut down due to COVID-19.  Her corner bar and food served the local South Boston community. Photo by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
Asia Mei, the owner of Moonshine 152 in Boston, stands in the doorway of her restaurant in April. –John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

Massachusetts remains in the first step of Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan — but Gov. Charlie Baker is slightly loosening restrictions on restaurants, following several weeks of consistently low statewide COVID-19 levels.

During a press conference Wednesday morning at a Lowell barbecue spot, Baker announced that the state will allow restaurants to seat customers in groups of up to 10 — an increase from the previous limit of six people per table — beginning Monday, Sept. 28.

The governor also said that restaurants will be able use bar seating for food service, as long as customers are seated and separated by at least six feet from other parties.

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“No standing around the bar!” Baker said, reiterating that standalone bars and nightclubs remain closed.

Bars and nightclubs remain in Phase 4 of the state’s reopening plan, which Baker has said he doesn’t anticipate to begin until a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 is available. The governor also announced last month that restaurants and breweries were only allowed to serve alcohol if accompanied by food that was prepared on site, amid signs of a slight COVID-19 uptick in Massachusetts and evidence from other states that indoor bars were contributing to the spread of the virus.

But since then, despite some hotspots, COVID-19 rates in Massachusetts have remained generally low; according to public health data, the statewide positive test rate has been below 1 percent since the beginning of September.

The new seating guidelines apply to both indoor and outdoor dining, which officials are trying to encourage as long as possible this fall. Tables must still be spaced at least six feet apart or physically separated by some form of solid barrier.

The same distancing requirements also apply to bar seating, which is only allowed if there is either no staff working behind the bar or if the work area is separated by barrier, such as a Plexiglas divider, that is at least 30 inches high (though there can be a eight-inch gap at the bottom to pass through food and drinks).

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“Until there’s a medical breakthrough like a vaccine, we have to do all we can, working with our colleagues in the food service business, to keep our restaurants and our other businesses safe,” Baker said Wednesday. “We hope these updates will also help Main Street shops and restaurants.”

However, they won’t be entirely adopted in all localities Monday. Citing his city’s general density, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced Wednesday afternoon that they will hold off relaxing the group limit.

“We’re going to stay with six people maximum per table, instead of 10,” Walsh tweeted, adding that the city would move forward with the other aspects of the revised rules.

The new guidelines also allow restaurants to use laminated reusable menus, as long as they are sanitized between each use. Similarly, reusable condiment containers — which were prohibited since May in favor of single-serve packages or cups — can be used as long as they are only provided upon request and sanitized between each use.

Read the updated state guidelines for restaurants below:

Social Distancing

Require face coverings for all customers and workers at all times, except where an individual is unable to wear a face covering due to medical condition or disability

Customers must wear face coverings unless seated at tables

While indoor table service is permitted, restaurants are encouraged to structure operations to operate as much as possible through outdoor table service and to strictly limit indoor table service in order to assure effective compliance with social distancing requirements and to limit activities within confined spaces

Restaurants must comply with the following sector specific social distancing rules for providing dining services in all customer seating areas:

  • Tables must be positioned so to maintain at least a 6 foot distance from all other tables and any high foot traffic areas (e.g., routes to bathrooms, entrances, exits); tables may be positioned closer if separated by protective / non-porous barriers (e.g., structural walls or plexi-glass dividers) not less than 6 feet high installed between tables and high foot traffic areas
  • The size of a party seated at a table cannot exceed 10.

Bar seating is permitted provided that either:

  • There are no active work areas or working staff behind the bar at least 6 ft away; or
  • There is a physical barrier (e.g. Plexiglas) separating customers from the bar space that is at least 30 inches high and a gap/opening at the bottom of the barrier is allowed for food and drink service as long as the gap/opening is no more than 8 inches high
  • In addition, parties must be seated at bars (no standing customer service) and parties must be spaced at least 6 ft from other parties
  • Subject to any applicable building and fire code requirements, bar areas may be re-configured to accommodate table seating that complies with all spacing and other requirements in these COVID-19 safety standards. Tables must not be placed within 6 feet of the staffed bartending area.

All customers must be seated; eat-in service to standing customers (e.g., around bar areas) is prohibited Restaurants may provide carry-out or delivery service, but all safety standards for table separation, size of party, and hygiene must be maintained for any indoor or outdoor table seating that is available to carry-out patronsAll other amenities and areas not employed for food and beverage service (e.g., dance floors, pool tables, playgrounds, etc.) must be closed or removed to prevent gathering of customers.

Recreation amenities which are allowed to open in Step 1 of Phase III (such as arcade games) may be open if adhering to all safety protocols in the Arcades & Other Indoor & Outdoor Game & Recreation Businesses including the requirement that active use of pool tables and other games involving patrons not seated at tables is not permitted in areas where food service is provided.

Ensure separation of 6 feet or more between all individuals (workers, vendors, and customers) unless this creates a safety hazard due to the nature of the work or the configuration of the workspace

  • Close or reconfigure worker common spaces and high density areas where workers are likely to congregate (e.g., break rooms, eating areas) to allow 6 feet of physical distancing; redesign work stations to ensure physical distancing (e.g., separate tables, stagger workstations on either side of processing lines so workers are not face-to-face, use distance markers to assure spacing including in the kitchen area)
  • Establish directional hallways and passageways for foot traffic if possible, to minimize contact (e.g., one-way entrance and exit to the restaurant). Post clearly visible signage regarding these policies
  • Prohibit lingering in common areas (e.g., waiting areas, bathrooms) and ensure social distancing in common areas by marking 6 feet spacing with tape or paint on the floor and signage
  • All customer-facing workers (e.g., servers, bus staff) must minimize time spent within 6 feet of customers

Designate assigned working areas to workers where possible to limit movement throughout the restaurant and limit contact between workers (e.g., assigning zones to servers)

Stagger work schedules and staff meal and break times, regulating maximum number of people in one place and ensuring at least 6 feet of physical distancing

Minimize the use of confined spaces (e.g., elevators, vehicles) by more than one individual at a time

Valet parking operations should be avoided unless necessary due to physical or geographic constraints or in order to accommodate individual guests with disabling conditions

  • Valets must be provided with hand sanitizer and should use sanitizer before and after parking vehicles

Hygiene Protocols

All workers must wash their hands frequently, and table servers must wash their hands or apply hand sanitizer between each table interaction

Ensure access to handwashing facilities on site, including soap and running water, and allow sufficient break time for workers to wash hands frequently; alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol may be used as an alternative

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol should be made available at entrances, exits, and in the dining area

Supply workers at workplace location with adequate cleaning products (e.g., sanitizer, disinfecting wipes)

Post visible signage throughout the site to remind workers and customers of hygiene and safety protocols

Self-serve, unattended buffets, topping bars, drink stations, and other communal serving areas must remain closed.

Condiments and similar products (e.g., salt, pepper, and salad dressing) should not be pre-set on tables and should instead only be provided upon request either in single-serving portions (e.g., individual packages or cups) or in serving containers that are sanitized between each use

Menus must be one of the following: 1) paper, single-use menus disposed after each use, 2) displayed menu (e.g., digital, whiteboard, chalkboard), 3) electronic menus viewed on customers’ phones / mobile devices, or 4) laminated reusable menus sanitized between each use

Utensils and place settings must be either single-use or sanitized after each use; utensils should be rolled or packaged. Tables should not be pre-set to reduce opportunity for exposure

Tables and chairs must be cleaned and sanitized thoroughly between each seating

Staffing and Operations

When possible, reservations or call ahead seating should be encouraged; managers must ensure that diners waiting for tables do not congregate in common areas or form lines

When taking reservations and when seating walk-in customers, restaurants should retain a phone number of someone in the party for possible contact tracing

Encourage use of technological solutions where possible to reduce person-to-person interaction (e.g., contactless payment, mobile ordering, text on arrival for seating)

Restaurants may not provide customers with buzzers or other devices to provide alerts that seating is available or orders are ready; restaurants should instead use no-touch methods such as audio announcements, text messaging, and notices on fixed video screens or blackboards

Alcoholic beverages may only be served for on-site consumption if accompanied by food prepared on-site.  Potato chips, pretzels, and other pre-packaged shelf stable foods, or other food prepared off-site, do not constitute food “prepared on-site.”  For each customer, an item of prepared food must be ordered at the same time as an initial alcoholic beverage(s) order.  One or more shareable food item(s) may be ordered, as long as it/they would sufficiently serve the number of people at the table.

Provide training to workers on up-to-date safety information and precautions including hygiene and other measures aimed at reducing disease transmission, including:

  • Social distancing, hand-washing, and requirement and proper use of face coverings
  • Modifying practices for serving in order to minimize time spent within 6 feet of customers
  • Self-screening at home, including temperature or symptom checks
  • Reinforcing that staff may not come to work if sick
  • When to seek medical attention if symptoms become severe
  • Which underlying health conditions may make individuals more susceptible to contracting and suffering from a severe case of the virus

Restaurant operators should establish adjusted workplace hours and shifts for workers to minimize contact across workers and reduce congestion at entry points

Limit visitors and vendors on site; shipping and deliveries should be completed in designated areas

Workers must stay home if feeling ill

Workers who are particularly high risk to COVID-19 according to the Centers for Disease Control (e.g., due to age or underlying conditions) are encouraged to stay home or arrange an alternate work assignment

Restaurants must screen workers at each shift by ensuring the following:

  • Worker is not experiencing any symptoms such as fever (100.0 and above) or chills, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, fatigue, headache, muscle/body aches, runny nose/congestion, new loss of taste or smell, or nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Worker has not had “close contact” with an individual diagnosed with COVID-19. “Close contact” means living in the same household as a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, caring for a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, being within 6 feet of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more, or coming in direct contact with secretions (e.g., sharing utensils, being coughed on) from a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, while that person was symptomatic
  • Worker has not been asked to self-isolate or quarantine by their doctor or a local public health official
  • Workers who fail to meet the above criteria must be sent home

Anyone showing signs of illness may be denied entry

Workers are strongly encouraged to self-identify symptoms or any close contact to a known or suspected COVID-19 case to the employer

Workers must stay home if feeling ill

Encourage workers who test positive for COVID-19 to disclose to the employer for purposes of cleaning / disinfecting and contact tracing. If the employer is notified of a positive case at the workplace, the employer shall notify the local Board of Health (LBOH) in the city or town where the workplace is located and assist the LBOH as reasonably requested to advise likely contacts to isolate and self-quarantine. Testing of other workers may be recommended consistent with guidance and / or at the request of the LBOH

Notify workers that they may not work if they test positive for COVID-19 (they should be isolated at home) or are found to be a close contact of someone with COVID-19 (they should be quarantined at home)

Post notice to workers and customers of important health information and relevant safety measures as outlined in the Commonwealth’s Mandatory Safety Standards for Workplace

Designate the Person in Charge (105 CMR 590) for each shift to oversee implementation of the guidelines in this document

Restaurants will be allowed to maximize outdoor dining space, including patios and parking lots where available, where municipal approval is obtained

Additional on-site amenities and services shall only open and operate when those amenities or services would otherwise be authorized to operate under the Commonwealth’s Phased Reopening Plan and then must adhere to all sector-specific safety protocols, available on the Reopening Plan website, applicable to the amenity or service. Examples include:

  • Darts, arcade games, and other indoor games: Must follow the Arcades & Other Indoor & Outdoor Game & Recreation Businesses guidance, including the requirement that active use of pool tables and other games involving patrons not seated at tables is not permitted in areas where food service is provided.Musical and other performances: Must follow the latest Theater and Performance Venue guidance, including distance between performers and between performers and attendees. Performances at indoor venues may not include singing or the playing of wind or brass instruments
  • Dance floors: Must remain closed until Phase 4
  • Gift shops: Must follow the latest retail guidance
  • Events hosted at restaurants must follow the Indoor and Outdoor Events guidance, including the capacity limitations in that guidance.

Cleaning and Disinfecting

Clean commonly touched surfaces in restrooms (e.g., toilet seats, doorknobs, stall handles, sinks, paper towel dispensers, soap dispensers) frequently and in accordance with CDC guidelines

Keep cleaning logs that include date, time, and scope of cleaning

Conduct frequent disinfecting of heavy transit areas and high-touch surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, elevator buttons, staircases)

Implement procedures to increase cleaning / disinfecting in the back-of-house. Avoid all food contact surfaces when using disinfectants. Food contact surfaces must be cleaned and sanitized before use with a sanitizer approved for food contact surfaces. Non-food contact surfaces must be frequently cleaned

In the event of a presumptive or actual positive COVID-19 case of a worker, patron, or vendor, the restaurant must be immediately shut down for 24 hours and then must be cleaned and disinfected in accordance with current CDC guidance before re-opening

Recommended Best Practices

Open windows and doors to increase airflow where possible

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