State outlines plan, timeline for lifting remaining COVID-19 restrictions


State House News Service

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker

By Katie Lannan, State House News Service

More than a year into the COVID-19 restrictions that have reshaped much of public life, Massachusetts now has a target date for when its business and capacity limits are set to be lifted: Aug. 1, 2021.

That date could come earlier depending on key public health metrics around vaccination, hospitalizations and case counts, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday as he detailed a suite of short- and longer-term updates to the state’s reopening timeline.

“The light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the hard work of so many, is getting closer, and we can start to look ahead with real optimism for the path forward,” Baker said.

Effective Friday, Massachusetts will relax its outdoor mask mandate to require face coverings outside only when it is not possible to socially distance and when they are otherwise required by sector-specific guidance. Masks will still be required at indoor public places, and at indoor and outdoor events.

In about two weeks, on May 10, large venues like stadiums can boost capacity from 12 percent to 25 percent, and amusement parks that submit safety plans to the state can reopen at 50 percent capacity. Road races and singing at indoor venues will be permitted with precautions in place.

More restrictions are set to ease Memorial Day weekend, and Baker’s office said those changes are “subject to public health and vaccination data.” On May 29, gathering limits are slated to increase to 200 people indoors and 250 outdoors; street festivals, parades and agricultural festivals can return at half-capacity; and bars, beer gardens, breweries, wineries and distilleries can reopen subject to the same rules as restaurants, including a 90-minute table limit.

The state also plans to update its restaurant guidance that day, to increase the maximum party size from six to 10 and eliminate the requirement that food be served with alcohol.

On Aug. 1, the gathering limit is scheduled to be rescinded, all industry restrictions will be lifted, and 100 percent capacity will again be allowed across all industries.

“We hope that with more vaccines and a continued success in stopping COVID we can take this step earlier, but it will depend on everyone continuing to get vaccinated and doing the right things,” Baker said.

Businesses will be “encouraged to continue following best practices,” as of Aug. 1, and the DPH “will also continue to issue guidance as needed, including guidance to still require masks indoors,” Baker’s office said.

Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Asssociation, thanked the administration for what he called a “measured approach to reopening our state” and said there is still “work to do in order to reach a new normal.”

“Our healthcare organizations are pleased that patients can safely return to the activities that they have missed – many of which are inextricably connected to their mental wellbeing,” Walsh said in a statement.

The National Federation of Independent Businesses gave mixed review to Baker’s timeline, saying his announcement contained “some positive news for bars that have been shuttered for well over a year now” and for wedding and event venues that will benefit from higher capacity limits.

“However, the fact that Massachusetts will lag behind our neighboring states when it comes to a full reopening of the economy is extremely concerning,” NFIB State Director Christopher Carlozzi said. “Seasonal businesses will be negatively impacted if they are forced to wait until August 1st to reach full capacity while states like Connecticut and Rhode Island fully reopen for business by Memorial Day. The real-world impact of waiting until the end of the summer for a full reopening will mean job loss and a slower recovery for many small businesses.”

Baker did not lay out a timeline for when he might rescind the COVID-19 state of emergency he declared on March 10, 2020. He said Tuesday that is “one of the things that we will continue to review based on” public health data.

Similarly, he said any future decision about changing indoor mask requirements would be “a function of both the public health and vaccination rates and the ongoing research that is continually occurring.”

“We believe the vast majority of the rules that are in place with respect to masks indoors have had a lot to do with helping us manage case counts and hospitalizations, and they’ve been a good thing,” Baker said.

The Aug. 1 target date lands 440 days after Baker first rolled out his gradual economic and social restart plan, which divided businesses and activities into four broad phases, and more than 500 days after the issuance of many of the emergency orders that first imposed restrictions.

On May 18, 2020, the day the reopening plan was released, the Department of Public Health reported 1,042 new cases of COVID-19 and 65 new deaths linked to the respiratory disease. A total of 87,052 cases of COVID-19 had been diagnosed in Massachusetts at that point, with 5,862 deaths. The state’s seven-day average positive test rate stood at 10.2 percent, and the three-day average of hospitalized COVID-19 patients was 2,607.

On Monday, the DPH reported 812 new cases of COVID-19 — the lowest daily total since early November — along with 12 new deaths, 625 hospitalizations and a seven-day positivity rate of 1.72 percent.

The state’s cumulative caseload stands at 641,211 since last February, with more than 17,000 confirmed fatalities, and the virus is still circulating in Massachusetts — the DPH estimates there are 29,601 active cases, more than the population of Agawam or Wellesley. Viral variants believed to be more contagious have also been detected here.

An August easing of restrictions would come ahead of a back-to-school season expected to bring students at all levels into the classrooms again after a full year of pandemic-disrupted and often remote schooling.

Many colleges and universities have announced they’re envisioning a return to more normal operations and campus life for the fall semester, in some cases with a requirement that students get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley has said his department is “planning for a full return in-person” for all K-12 grade levels in the fall. Riley announced Tuesday that high schools, except those that are granted waivers, will be required to repopulate their classrooms by May 17, though families can opt to continue with remote learning for their students through the end of this academic year.

Baker said it was “thanks to the testing, vaccines and everyone’s work to get COVID in check in Massachusetts” that high schoolers would return to classrooms.

Since the state last moved forward in the reopening process — on March 22, the day travel restrictions were rolled back, stadiums were allowed to reopen at 12 percent capacity and gathering limits were raised — Massachusetts has progressed in its efforts to vaccinate its population against COVID-19.

All Bay Staters aged 16 and older became eligible for the shots on April 19, and as of Monday, more than 2.35 million people were fully vaccinated.