By Max Bowenfirstname.lastname@example.org
After a year of masks and a reduced capacity, businesses will resume a more normal mode.
Earlier last week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the state’s face covering order would be rescinded on May 29. All industry restrictions will be lifted, and capacity will increase to 100 percent for all industries. The gathering limit will be rescinded.
Face coverings will still be mandatory for all individuals on public and private transportation systems (including rideshares, livery, taxi, ferries, MBTA, Commuter Rail and transportation stations), in healthcare facilities and in other settings hosting vulnerable populations, such as congregate care settings. Gov. Baker will end the State of Emergency June 15.
Lyle Pirnie, the town’s director of economic development, and said that with this announcement, the businesses of the state will be fully open once more. Since the press conference on May 17, he’s been fielding calls from a number of people and business owners. Some live in Rhode Island but work in Massachusetts and are concerned about what the news means for them.
“There’s a little bit of confusion,” he said. “So many people are in shock because it happened so fast.”
The town has been actively helping its business owners, either with providing information or helping apply for financial assistance. Last year, the town received a $30,000 Streetscapes grant that covered the costs for outdoor dining. He said that outdoor dining will continue this year, and many businesses have already begun offering it. Pirnie said that a good sign is calls asking about the permitting process to open a new business.
“There are two open spots in downtown,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll be open for long.”
North Attleborough’s COVID cases places it in the Green designation. Health Department Director Anne Marie Fleming said that the town has 21 currently infectious cases and is in a much better place than in January. Another surge in cases is possible, said Fleming, in particular from the COVID-19 variants.
“I’d love to see more people get vaccinated,” said Fleming.
Fleming said that the decision to allow businesses to reopen makes sense based on the downward trend in cases. She added that people will need to be aware of any risks they’re taking, such as a large gathering when they’re not vaccinated.
“We don’t want to expose those that are vulnerable and may have more severe consequences,” said Fleming.
Owners look to shift in guidelines
Amy Raposa is co-owner of Salon 7, along with Lourdes Carvalho. Raposa said that the news came as a shock after months of working under the guidelines. She said that the staff will wait to hear from the Massachusetts State Board of Cosmetology before deciding what to do. One concern is that they have elderly customers who have been with them for years.
“It’s a little all at once,” said Raposa. “We don’t want to lose the customers now that we got them all back.”
Under the COVID guidelines, Salon 7 was limited to 25 percent capacity, and rearranged the staff to work morning or evening shifts. They added 10 minutes to properly clean their stations after each customer, and all that time added up to four less customers a day.
“We’re very lucky,” she said. “We have a great staff and loyal clientele.”
Charlie Tgibedes, owner of Box Seats, said that this is great for the restaurant industry, which has been hard hit over the last year. When outdoor dining was permitted, Tgibedes purchased a tent, though at great expense.
“We’ve been waiting for a year now to have full use of the facility,” he said. “A lot of the restaurants and bars that have been closed can open.”
The biggest issue is having enough staff, said Tgibedes. Over the last year, many of those that were laid off have moved on to other careers or are still on unemployment. He estimated that Box Seats is down 30 percent of the personnel needed.
“It’s a concern—I see it in my business. I hear it from every other business owner I talk to,” said Tgibedes. “It seems to be the same conversation. Everybody is desperately looking for help.”
It’s a worry echoed by Jack Lank, president of the United Regional Chamber of Commerce, which works with businesses in 16 communities, including North Attleborough. He said many owners are down as much as 50 percent of the staff needed once full capacity can resume, and the concern is that customers will become upset at long wait times.
Lank said that in some cases, staff moved on to new careers during the shutdown, and others remain on unemployment, which with the current $300 bonus can equal or surpass what they were making.
“They’re (the owners) concerned that they’re going to have disgruntled customers like they did during COVID,” said Lank.
The shortage of staff isn’t just limited to restaurants. Lank said most businesses are dealing with this to one extent or another. In a retail store, for example, a lack of employees may mean customers can’t get help with a purchase. He added that tradespeople have had difficulty finding qualified workers. Job fairs have been held, but to little effect. But still, he said the owners are encouraged by the news.
“There’s some excitement and they’re hoping over the next three months that the workers will come back to work and they will have a full staff,” he said.
Paul Markis, one of the partners at Stella Osteria and Table @ 10, said that people are excited about the upcoming change. He said it helps to see such a strong sign of things going back to normal.
“People will be less afraid of coming out,” he said.
Markis is also dealing with a shortage of personnel, and estimated that the restaurant is running a third less than normal. He doesn’t blame those that aren’t going back to work, though, saying that they all need to choose what’s best for them. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to what’s next, as are the customers.
“It’s a psychological thing,” said Markis. “A sigh of relief that they can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”