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With the mask mandate lifted, Boston restaurants look ahead

Bessie King talks with a customer at the Villa Mexico Cafe in Boston's Financial District. The restaurant just reopened after five months. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Bessie King talks with a customer at the Villa Mexico Cafe in Boston's Financial District. The restaurant just reopened after five months. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Julie King just reopened her restaurant, Villa Mexico Cafe, in the Financial District after a more than a five-month shutdown. She closed down in late September due to a family emergency and slow business, as remote work sapped foot traffic.

On King’s first day back, some long-time customers stopped in to pay her a visit.

“They came here to say hello and to ask about my mom and to see how was everything,” she said.

As a restaurant owner, King faces some challenges as the city enters a new phase of the pandemic. Food prices have gone up along with gas prices, and she’s working with a smaller staff. She hopes foot traffic will return when offices in the city start to welcome back employees who have worked remotely for the past two years.

While King and other Boston restaurants owners work out these issues, they now have one less thing to manage: Boston’s indoor mask mandate.

With COVID-19 cases low, the city of Boston lifted the requirement for masking in restaurants, bars, museums, gyms and entertainment venues as of March 5.

But if you plan to go to Villa Mexico any time soon, it’s a good idea to bring a mask.

“I’m going to give it until May to see if [cases are] going down, down, down,” King said.

King is holding onto her pandemic routine, including requiring her workers to wear masks. And if customers come in without a mask, she plans to offer them one. King, 67, said she doesn’t want to take any chances getting sick. Plus, she said, a mask highlights one of her best features.

“I am very happy with the mask,” said King. “Because the only thing they can [see are] my pretty eyes. That’s it.”

Some restaurant workers are relieved the mask mandate is over.

Jason Gentles, executive chef of Jamaica Mi Hungry, said sometimes staff had to remind unruly customers to wear a mask. He’s glad that’s over.

“[It’s] a big, big relief,” Gentles said.

While many local restaurants are still struggling to regain their footing, Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen in the South End seems to be on the upswing.

Owner Nia Grace said business is trending toward pre-pandemic levels, with enough staff to bring back their Sunday night hours.

She said staff and guests are welcome with or without a mask. But, she said, just because the mandate ended doesn’t mean the other safety protocols went with it.

“It doesn’t mean that we’re stopping any other precautions that we’ve been doing over the last two years, and even prior to that, to keep our customers safe,” said Grace. “Proper food handling and sanitizing — all those steps of service that we’ve come to master, it’s still there, with or without that mask.”

In Boston, masks are still required on public transportation, as well as in congregate care facilities, health care spaces and public schools. No date has been announced for when that will change.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.