May 27—LAWRENCE — For some bar and nightclub owners, Saturday marks the first day in 14 months they will have opened their doors and welcomed patrons.
Masks still will be worn and plexiglass barriers will separate takeout food service stations from customers, but dancing may resume and social distancing is simply recommended — not required.
That signals progress to city officials, who outlined the updated Lawrence-only guidelines taking effect May 29. Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Baker rolled out his latest reopening plans, but allowed communities to make their own rules within those boundaries.
During a meeting with several dozen bar and nightclub owners Wednesday night at the Lawrence Public Library, Mayor Kendrys Vasquez, Inspectional Services Director Mike Armano and members of the city's code enforcement team including Lawrence police Lt. Jay Cerullo discussed new guidelines being formalized in advance of Saturday's reopening.
According to Armano, guidelines are being kept as flexible as possible to keep customers coming and revenue flowing.
The new set of rules are expected to be in place through Dec. 31 or for as long as the city is in the red, high-risk zone for COVID-19 infection, according to Vasquez. One of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic, Lawrence has consistently had high COVID-19 case counts and positivity rates.
"If there was no reasonable public health purpose to restrict gatherings, we didn't want to put more restrictions on your business," Armano said. "We didn't want to put (limits) on social distancing for the same reason. We're open minded, but wanted to add little precautions and hope they won't impact your business too much."
All customers aged 5 and older must continue to wear masks indoors, Armano said — and otherwise they will be considered to be trespassing. Armano said the mask-wearing guidelines that pertain to dancing are still being drafted ahead of Saturday's opening, but he asks that patrons use a common sense approach when out and about.
"We're literally building the plane as we're flying it, but as of now, the rule is, wear a mask indoors," Armano said. "We had this rule when there was no dancing, so this is something we have to think about. We don't want to have to make restrictions. I'm sure Gov. Baker didn't want to make restrictions. But we're in the red. Out of all the cities in the Commonwealth, Lawrence is the worst for case rates, percent positivity and vaccinations."
But he emphasized, "So believe me, we want your businesses to be open, but you have to understand that people come to us with family members dying. We have competing interests and need to think of what's best for the community."
The governor previously announced that the statewide order mandating face coverings also ends Saturday. In doing so, he allowed municipalities like Lawrence to create their own guidance around such rules. The existing state of emergency also ends June 15, Baker said.
Bar and nightclub owners in Lawrence must also now institute a contact tracing policy by way of a guestbook, they learned Wednesday night. The name and phone number of one person in each party will be logged and provided to city public health officials upon request, according to the mayor. "
Restaurant owner Juan Hidalgo looks forward to welcoming customers to Bali's this weekend at full capacity. According to Hidalgo, the 59 Essex St. eatery and bar never closed during the pandemic, but was forced to get creative, often turning to the Uber Eats delivery service, to make ends meet.
"We had to improvise," he said of surviving the last year. "(The new guidelines are) a little confusing still and we want to do it the right way. The city is trying to do a good job with things in the red. The city's trying to do the best they can with what they have, so hopefully we can all work together and get things solved and open."
Armano shares Hidalgo's cautious optimism.
"Your businesses are essential to our city," Armano told the owners. "You bring jobs and an economy to Lawrence. We want nothing more than for you to open up your businesses."