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Restrictions tighten on restaurants as pandemic charges on

A number of states and cities have taken steps to discourage crowds from gathering inside or outside. The measures also aim to encourage mask wearing.
Photograph: Shutterstock

State and local governments are tightening restrictions on restaurants and bars as officials angrily sound off on the refusal of some establishments to follow basic safeguards against COVID-19.  

Many of the new directives are aimed at averting crowds at eating and drinking places, as well as forcing restaurants and their patrons to observe facemask requirements and recommendations.

Massachusetts, for instance, is lowering the limit on outdoor gatherings as of today to 50 people, from a prior cap of 100. State officials have observed that crowds of young people have tended to gather and linger outside restaurants and what Gov. Charlie Baker blasted as “bars masquerading as restaurants,” often without wearing masks. 

Bars in the state have not yet been allowed to reopen for indoor service, though many have started selling pre-packaged foods and asserting they’re really restaurants. Baker vowed to shut those imposters down.

Even actual restaurants can only sell alcoholic beverages to customers who also order food. But some places have tried to skirt that rule by selling bags of chips or other snacks as their food offering.

Baker closed that loophole last week with a new directive that specifically disqualifies pretzels, potato chips and other packaged items as acceptable food offerings. Under his stipulations, the food must be prepared on premise.

Face coverings are now required for any group of 10 or more patrons who are not from the same household. Only six people will be seated per table, a stipulation that is already in place.

Service will be provided only to seated patrons, a restriction intended to discourage leisurely socializing and loitering.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has already dropped the cap on gatherings within his state to 10 people. He has also set a 10 p.m. curfew on restaurants that serve alcohol, again aiming to discourage patrons from hanging out to socialize.

Illinois has set fines of $75 to $2,500 for restaurants and other businesses that fail to follow anti-COVID requirements. The charges will be levied on the operations only after authorities provide a written warning. If a place refuses to comply, state officials have been given the authority by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to evict enough patrons to meet capacity caps and social-distancing requirements. Only then will the misdemeanor charges and fines be levied, he announced at the end of last week.

Pritzker said the tiered enforcement is intended to spare businesses from having their liquor licenses immediately rescinded, an approach New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has zealously used to enforce the safety measures set for restaurants in his state. On a single Monday night, almost 1,000 eating and drinking places were spot-checked by state police and liquor authorities. Eleven places flouting the rules were stripped of their alcohol service permits within a day, and 27 additional establishments were cited for infractions that subject them to fines of up to $10,000.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is threatening to shut down the city’s lakefront restaurants after she spotted large crowds on the beach and personally broke up one of the gatherings because the participants were not wearing masks or keeping six feet apart. Hours later, that area of the waterfront was closed off with fencing.

It’s called a pandemic, people,” the mayor wrote in a social media post right afterward. “Don’t make us take steps backwards.

Anchorage, Ak., has limited outdoor gatherings where food and beverages are served to 25 people. At the start of the month, it suspended all dine-in restaurant and bar service for a second time.

The flurry of activity comes as COVID-19 infections continue to increase at a rate that has alarmed health authorities. Chicago is one of nine cities that Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House COVID-19 task force, has cited as coronavirus hot spots in need of immediate effort to combat infections. The others are Atlanta; Baltimore; Boston; Detroit; Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; Omaha and Washington, D.C.

Not all states are tightening the safeguards against COVID-19. Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order that permits restaurant employees who tested positive for coronavirus to resume work without subsequently testing negative. Previously, two negative tests were required before that individual could go back to the job. Now, a restaurant’s manager will give a yea or nay on the staff member’s return.

DeSantis said the change was needed because of adjustments in the best practices recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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