Restaurants will be allowed to resume dine-in services beginning next week as the state continues to reopen sections of its coronavirus battered economy.
Speaking at a briefing on Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker said the state is moving ahead with a new phase in reopening that will allow expanded restaurant and retail service and give offices the option to bring back more employees. Baker cited a continued decline in the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the state.
"Reopening Massachusetts is working" Baker told reporters. "Businesses are coming back and people are regaining that sense of purpose that was lost."
The move is part of a four-part plan to restart the economy and bring back hundreds of thousands of workers, with each phase seeing additional businesses reopen.
Beginning Monday, offices can expand their capacity from 25% to 50% under the new phase. Employees must wear masks or face coverings in close spaces such as break rooms or elevators, and work in staggered schedules to limit contact.
Restaurants won't face capacity limits like offices but tables must be placed at least 6 feet apart and customers and staff should be wearing masks when social distancing isn't possible.
Baker has encouraged companies to continue to allow their employees to work remotely or from home during the initial stages of reopening.
Roughly half of the state government's workforce is operating remotely, and Baker recently said that will continue under the latest reopening stage.
The latest lifting of restrictions will also allow businesses with close customer contact — nail salons, tattoo parlors and physical training — to resume, with restrictions.
Bars will remain closed until a third phase of the reopening plan, but it's not clear when that stage will get underway.
Massachusetts was one of the hardest-hit states by the outbreak, with more than 106,422 COVID-19 cases and 7,770 deaths as of Thursday.
But Baker said the state is seeing a continued decline in the number of infections, deaths and hospitalizations.
More than 900,000 people have been tested for the virus in Massachusetts, with the average positive test result at about 2.3% -- a decline of about 92% since April, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.
Restaurants have complained for weeks about being restricted to take-out and outdoor dining as other sections of the retail economy were allowed to reopen.
The push to reopen has been fueled by public frustration as unemployment soars, businesses struggle to survive closures, and fears of a recession mount.
Chris Carlozzi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, welcomed Baker's announcement but urged the state to accelerate the reopening process.
"In order to head down the path toward normalcy and bring the state economy back online, Massachusetts must allow the remainder of small businesses to open their doors again," Carlozzi said in a statement. "A robust recovery will only occur through small business job creation."
Baker said he knows some aren't satisfied with the pace of restarting the economy, but argues the state risks a second wave of infections if it opens up too quickly.
"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," he said at Friday's briefing. "We're reopening and containing COVID, but it only works when everybody does their job to slow the spread."
For more information about the latest reopening phase: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/reopening-massachusetts
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.