Massachusetts soon will no longer require residents to wear masks when they are outdoors in most public spaces and able to physically distance from others. The state also released Tuesday its timeline for a full reopening of business activities by August.
Effective Friday, April 30, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday that because the state's COVID-19 infection rate continues to drop, the state's mandatory policy on masks in outdoor public settings will lift. The measure was first put in place on Nov. 6, 2020. Children under age 5 and people with certain medical conditions were exempt.
"Face coverings will only be required outside in public when it is not possible to socially distance, and at other times required by sector-specific guidance," the Baker administration said in its release. The state still recommends masks for people gathering at private residences with those outside their households, but in ending its outdoor mask policy, the state will also dispense with its $300 enforcement fine.
Masks are still required for patrons of indoor businesses, with some industry-specific exceptions, and Baker said he does not yet intend to lift those mandates.
As of Tuesday, the state's seven-day positive COVID test rate was at an encouraging 1.72%. More than a third of the state's total population — over 2.3 million people — are now fully vaccinated against the illness.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday also said masks were no longer necessary outdoors for fully vaccinated adults, unless those individuals are in crowded areas.
The State's Final Reopening Plans
With public health data improving since the state last loosened its COVID restrictions on March 22, the governor declared that the state, which is in the final phases of its reopening plans, would further ease restrictions on gatherings and businesses that were put in place to halt the spread of the virus.
Three dates — Monday, May 10; Saturday, May 29; and Sunday, Aug. 1 — will bring about the most significant changes to the rules.
On May 10 (Massachusetts enters step two of phase four of its reopening plans):
- Amusement parks and outdoor water parks can reopen at 50% capacity.
- Road races and other organized athletic events are allowed with staggered starts, as long as event coordinators submit public safety plans to local boards of health.
- Youth and adult amateur sports tournaments can resume for moderate- and high-risk sports.
- Large venues like indoor and outdoor stadiums that were able to open in late March can increase capacity to 25%.
- Indoor singing with strict distancing requirements at performance venues, restaurants and other businesses will be allowed.
On May 29:
- The state will loosen its restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings, both private and public, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said. For indoor gatherings, parties of 200 people will be allowed; outdoor events will be capped at 250 people.
- Wineries, breweries and bars may serve patrons who do not order food. However, table service spread 6 feet apart will still be required so that customers are not standing around bars or other tables. Table limits will be set to parties of 10. Dance floors will not be allowed.
- Street festivals and parades will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity.
On Aug. 1:
- All other businesses may fully reopen, with all limits on staff and patron capacity lifted, including for dance clubs, nightclubs, saunas, hot tubs, steam rooms, indoor water parks and ball pits.
- All gathering limits will end.
While Baker's updated restrictions apply statewide, some communities have often opted to keep in place stricter rules than what the state allows.
Boston and Somerville are among those cities that announced separate and slower reopening timelines on Tuesday. Other municipalities may choose to do so, too, depending on how the virus is affecting their communities.
In a press conference Tuesday, Baker touted the state's current vaccination trends and noted that, as of April 19, all adults older than 16 were made eligible for coronavirus vaccination. (Here are tips from Massachusetts residents on how to book your vaccine appointment.) The Republican governor said that his administration does not plan to make vaccinations mandatory for state workers.
"The people of Massachusetts have been incredible every step of the way in terms of their flexibility, their resiliency, their creativity, their support for one another, their willingness to make clear to us what they don’t like about what we do, which I also appreciate," Baker said at the press conference.
Baker also announced that high schools students across the state will return to classrooms for full-time, in-person learning on May 17. Elementary school students returned this past Monday, and middle-schoolers are due back Wednesday, April 28.
Some epidemiologists, like Boston Medical Center's Ben Linas, cautioned that while risks of contracting the coronavirus outdoors remained low, the virus was still very much with the state and that people, tired of restrictions as they may be, should remain vigilant.
"The reality is that people are exhausted and no one is willing to do this anymore," he wrote in an email.
"We have to provide something positive and acknowledge some progress in the epidemic or risk losing the attention of everyone. The risk of COVID outdoors when not in a crowd is effectively zero. Let’s give some ground there, so that we can more effectively hold onto strict [measures] when it really matters.
"We are not done yet," he added. "There is real risk, but not outside. Let’s give ourselves a break, enjoy outdoors in the summer, and work hard on the real risk — indoor events, indoor dining etc."
The governor's announcement was, however, cheered by several businesses.
Chuck Sturtivant, who heads the Cape Cod Baseball League, said the league had to cancel its 2020 season, and initially, it was prepared to cap this season's attendance at 150 people per game. Now, the new guidelines will allow more than 1,000 fans to come cheer.
"And I just hope we can all not get too hurt financially, and we just move forward so we can prepare for next year," he added.
Gathering And Business Rules
Gatherings at private residences previously have been capped at 10 people for indoor functions and 25 for backyard or other outdoor activities. On May 29, those limits are set to increase significantly.
Since Monday, March 22, the Baker administration has forced most indoor public venues to keep capacity to 100 people, with the limit on outdoor venues set to 150. Stadiums and other sports arenas, like Fenway Park and TDGarden, were recently allowed to open at 12% capacity. Tuesday's announcement loosens that cap to 25%.
For months, indoor businesses have been allowed to operate at up to 50% capacity, excluding employees. And while the state earlier had lifted capacity restrictions on restaurants, tables were not allowed to seat more than six people and a 90-minute dining limit has been enforced since the state saw a rise in coronavirus cases over the winter.
Movie and live performance theaters have been subject to the 50% capacity guidelines, with an upper limit of 250 people regardless of venue size.
Since March 22, all visitors entering Massachusetts, including returning residents, are advised to quarantine for 10 days upon their arrival.
Exceptions to these restrictions include those who receive a negative COVID test administered not more than 72 hours prior to their arrival in Massachusetts; those who are only in the state for less than 24 hours or residents who are out of the state for less than 24 hours. Critical infrastructure workers or anyone who has been fully vaccinated against COVID are also exempt.
WBUR reporters Angus Chen and Quincy Walters contributed to this report.
This article was originally published on April 27, 2021.
This segment aired on April 27, 2021.
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