Massachusetts to phase out more COVID-19 restrictions this spring

Massachusetts to phase out more COVID-19 restrictions this spring


With more than half of Massachusetts residents at least partially vaccinated, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a multi-step plan Tuesday to phase out more COVID-19 restrictions and allow more businesses to reopen over the course of the next month — with an aim of eliminating all limits on businesses and gatherings by August.

In a press release Tuesday morning, Baker’s office said the changes will begin Friday when the state’s strict mask mandate will be eased to allow people to remove face coverings when they are outside in public and able to socially distance. Masks will still be required in indoor public places, as well as at certain outdoor settings, like large gatherings and events. However, state officials are eliminating the $300 fine for violations.

Beginning on May 10, the state will move forward to the second step of Phase 4 of Baker’s reopening plan, allowing amusement parks, theme parks, and outdoor water parks to reopen at 50 percent capacity and with other safety protocols in place.

Road races and other large, outdoor athletic events will also be allowed to resume under health and safety protocols approved by local health officials. Officials say races will be required to include staggered starts. Youth and adult amateur sports tournaments will be allowed for moderate and high risk sports.

Baker’s plan also allows indoor singing — with strict distancing requirements — to resume May 10 at performance venues, restaurants, event venues, and other businesses.

As part of the step, capacity limits for large venues and stadiums like TD Garden and Fenway Park, which were allowed to reopen at 12 percent capacity on March 22, will be lifted to 25 percent on May 10. The occupancy limit for most other businesses will remain at 50 percent.

Baker’s office, which noted that case rates have decreased 20 percent since Massachusetts entered Phase 4 of the reopening on March 22, says a second round of changes will take effect on May 29, subject to coronavirus and vaccination trends.

According to the plan, the state will ease limits on all gatherings — both public and private — on May 29, allowing up to 200 people indoors and 250 people outdoors. Beginning on May 29, street festivals and parades will also be allowed to resume at 50 percent of their previous capacities and with approved safety plans.

The state will also let wineries, breweries, and bars that don’t serve food reopen on May 29 — and all restaurants will no longer be required to serve food with alcohol. However, customers will still be required to be seated (in other words, no standing around the bar). Tables will be limited to a maximum of 10 people, a 90-minute time limit, and subject to distancing requirements. Dance floors also will not be allowed to reopen.

Finally, Baker’s administration plans on Aug. 1 to allow the remaining closed settings — dance clubs, nightclubs, saunas, hot tubs, steam rooms, indoor water parks, and ball pits — to reopen and to allow all industries to reopen at 100 percent capacity, with businesses “encouraged to continue following best practices.” Statewide gathering limits will also be rescinded.

Baker’s office noted that the Aug. 1 date may be reevaluated depending on vaccine distribution and public health data. The state’s Department of Public Health will continue to issue guidance as needed, including guidance still requiring masks indoors, officials said.

Nearly a year after Baker first outlined the four-phase plan to reopen businesses in Massachusetts amid the pandemic, the plan comes as the state continues to average just over 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day. However, after a slight uptick last month, the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 in Massachusetts have continued to decline, despite the spread of more contagious variants of the virus.

The state also continues to vaccinate tens of thousands of residents each day. As of Monday, more than a third of Massachusetts residents had received both shots of the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. According to The New York Times vaccine tracker, 54 percent of Bay Staters have gotten at least one dose of one of the three vaccines.

Connecticut and Rhode Island also announced plans last week to more aggressively phase out virtually all COVID-19 restrictions on businesses over the course of May, though the states plan to continue to require masks in indoor public settings past that date.

Many disease experts remain cautious about relaxing restriction too quickly at the risk of another bounce in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and preventable deaths. However, most agree that it was appropriate for Baker to ease the state’s outdoor mask mandate, which currently applies to all outdoor public settings, with no exceptions for when people can keep distance from others.

“Being outdoors in an open area exercising or where you can safely socially distance from people, there’s really not a need for masks in that setting,” David Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University, told Boston.com.

However, according to Hamer, masks should still be required for indoor public settings, like public transit, supermarkets, and stores, as well as crowded outdoor settings.

Northeastern University professor Sam Scarpino, who has criticized Baker for relaxing business restrictions too quickly, agreed that the mask mandate could be eased. However, he said the economic reopening plan should be more directly tied to benchmarks in vaccination coverage and case rates, as opposed to “ad hoc” dates. Scarpino said that the state needs to aim to vaccinate 75 percent to 80 percent of the population.

“Case levels are still way too high,” he said. “It sort of seems like we’re just making it up as we go along, instead of tying it to vaccination coverage or …. positivity rate.”

Cassandra Pierre, an epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center and BU professor, said she worries that relaxing restrictions sends the message certain settings are completely safe. While state officials argue that most COVID-19 transmission has occurred in private gatherings where individuals let down their guard, Pierre said that easing restrictions on bars and other large indoor venues encourages individuals from separate households to congregate — particularly younger people who are less vaccinated.

“It’s premature to declare victory,” Pierre said.

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