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FOOD

‘A total game changer’: Restaurateurs cautiously celebrate increased capacity limits

Several said the move gives them a greater chance of surviving until outdoor dining returns.

Patrons waiting to enter Saltie Girl on Newbury Street in September.
Patrons waiting to enter Saltie Girl on Newbury Street in September.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Because of a statewide increase in capacity limits for select businesses, restaurants across Massachusetts will be allowed to fill 40 percent — rather than 25 percent — of their seats this Valentine’s Day. And some restaurant owners are saying that modest boost will go a long way toward helping them make it through the winter.

“Thank God,” Table owner Jen Royle said. “I figured they’d go to 50, but 40 is good.”

The move means places like restaurants, stores, and gyms can accommodate more people starting Monday at 5 a.m. It’s an incremental change from restrictions enacted after Christmas, when a surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths crushed the state.

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Governor Charlie Baker said the new limits, announced Thursday, were prompted by recent improvements in virus data.

Several restaurant owners said the increased seating allowances, coupled with the end of the 9:30 p.m. curfew two weeks ago, gives restaurants a greater chance of surviving until outdoor dining returns.

Since the pandemic began, more than 3,400 restaurants in the state have closed permanently, according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.

For Royle, being able to seat even just a few more diners is a “total game changer,” she said. She had temporarily closed sit-down service at her North End spot last month because serving just 12 people at a time didn’t make financial sense. With the increased capacity, she’ll be able to seat 20, which brings back the possibility of breaking even from in-person dining.

“To have a whole seating at 6 o’clock for just 12 people is ridiculous,” said Royle, who intends to open again next week. “I’d have to make my numbers by doing two seatings. So the fact that I can now do 20 and 20 is fantastic.”

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The timing of the announcement is particularly serendipitous close to Valentine’s Day, when restaurants are seating mostly one couple per table.

Saltie Girl owner Kathy Sidell
Saltie Girl owner Kathy SidellJohn Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Owner Kathy Sidell said the news pushes the indoor limit at Saltie Girl to 90 and to 76 at Stephanie’s — a “huge” boost for her businesses before the holiday weekend.

Sidell said the updated measures may also encourage her to hire back hosts. But she expects most owners won’t put the bulk of laid-off workers back on payroll until restaurants can seat at least 50 percent of their normal capacity.

“This increase is considerable, especially around Valentine’s Day, when it’s two-tops all around,” she explained. “It’s a blow when you can only have a fourth of your restaurant full like we did before.”

Restaurateurs are keenly aware of the safety threats brought on by a bigger crowd of customers — and of the role they play in keeping the virus at bay. Chef-owner Douglass Williams of MIDA said it’s more important than ever to bear down on mask mandates and the social distancing orders that have helped get the number of cases down.

Douglass Williams of Mida restaurant in the South End
Douglass Williams of Mida restaurant in the South EndDavid L Ryan/Globe Staff/file

“Any sort of extended service and increased capacity is going to help us, but it ultimately hurts us if we aren’t responsible,” he said. “With greater freedom and greater leeway, there’s greater responsibility. We have to make it so the least comfortable person feels extremely comfortable.”

Other spots are toeing the line between safety and survival.

“I’m always reluctant,” Sidell said. “We walk a delicate balance between feeling like it’s really important to stay open so that everybody has a paycheck — and staying safe. We’re in a business where all of us are careful anyway, because we have training around food and how to handle it. Now it’s about being as vigilant as possible.”

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Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_.