With the coronavirus outbreak relatively contained in Massachusetts at least for now, Governor Charlie Baker Thursday announced plans to loosen more restrictions on daily life and gave businesses such as gyms, museums, and casinos the green light to reopen for the first time in months.
Baker said Phase 3 of his plan to restart the economy — which includes many larger indoor venues — can start Monday, except in the City of Boston, where it takes effect July 13. The move could give a lifeline to the state’s struggling tourism industry in its peak summer season and give a shot in the arm to some small businesses that have been shuttered since March.
It’s the latest tentative step toward normalcy after a wave of infections that crested here this spring but comes as other states — particularly in the South and West — are seeing their most intense outbreaks yet. They are a reminder, Baker said, that both businesses and their customers must follow rules designed to encourage social distancing and prevent the virus from flaring here again.
“It’s critical that we continue to be smart about how we do this,” he said. “We’d hate to have to move backwards.”
Still, the data here, he said, make “clear that Massachusetts is effectively bringing the fight to the virus.”
The recent surge in other parts of the country has prompted some states to pause, or even reverse, their reopening plans. In Massachusetts, though, new cases remain low relative to their peaks this spring. The state Thursday reported 51 new confirmed or probable deaths from COVID-19, bringing the total to 8,132. The number of people testing positive climbed by 195, to 109,338.
The Baker administration has watched those numbers closely, trying to balance containing the virus with kick-starting an economy that has shed more than 1 million jobs since the pandemic first hit in March.
The low numbers gave state officials enough confidence, Baker said, to move on to Phase 3 of their four-part plan, which allows many indoor venues to reopen, with a host of safety guidelines, loosens some restrictions on gatherings, and permits pro sports, though without fans.
As in other phases, it will be a bit slower in Boston — something Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he supports — to give both city officials and businesses in the state’s largest and most complex city more time to refine new procedures and protocols.
Some businesses have been readying for this day for some time, even as they acknowledge there’s no telling what consumers will do and life won’t really be back to normal for a while.
Cindy Brown, chief executive of Boston Duck Tours, said her company has been training its drivers on new safety protocols, designing new seating plans for 50 percent capacity, and stashing their trademark Duck Lips yellow quackers away for another, post-pandemic, summer. They’ll only run half as many tours, at least to start, but they’re eager to get going when tour buses can resume in Boston on July 13.
“I think there’s a pent-up demand from people who want to do anything but stay home,” she said. “People are happy being outside, and we’re looking forward to welcoming people back.”
Gyms, too, are trying to figure out the new rules and how they might make ends meet with limits of 40 percent capacity and 14-foot spacing between exercise equipment (though that can be reduced to 6 feet if they install barriers).
Still, Meredith Poppler, a spokeswoman for the Boston-based International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association, said her members were eager to get back open. And Planet Fitness, for instance, said it plans to open “the majority” of its 75 Massachusetts locations on Monday.
Other venues may take a slower approach.
While museums can reopen starting Monday, many plan to stay closed until later in July or August, said Don Yaeger, executive director of the New England Museum Association, as they sort through the many complications of life under coronavirus. From safety protocols to budget concerns to questions about just how many visitors will really come this summer, there’s much that is unknown right now, he said.
“It’s a balancing act,” Yaeger said. “You need the revenue. You’d like to hire staff back. But you’re concerned about public health and the health of your staff. There are a lot of variables.”
Some companies can look at locations elsewhere for pointers. Wynn Resorts, which operates Encore Boston Harbor casino in Everett, has already reopened properties in Las Vegas and Macau and will look there, along with newly approved guidelines from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, for best practices, said spokesman Eric Kraus. After several days of training — and rehiring “a large portion” of the 3,000 employees the casino recently furloughed — Encore plans to reopen July 12.
“This is really a blessing,” Kraus said. “We will do everything we can to keep our customers and staff safe and to preserve the guest experience.”
This could be as open as life gets for a while, though.
While Massachusetts has progressed through the first two phases of Baker’s reopening plan in just six weeks, Baker cautioned that Phase 3 will last far longer than previous steps and that Phase 4 — basically full resumption of normal activities — won’t begin until effective COVID treatments or a vaccine are in place.
That, Baker said, could help prevent a resurgence of the virus, which he noted has spread quickly elsewhere in settings such as crowded bars and nightclubs. Those are still not allowed to open here, and may not be for some time.
“As difficult as it is for the people who operate and work in those institutions, we could not figure out a way to do that safely,” he said. “And I think some of the indicators we’ve gotten from other states that move forward with those is that they couldn’t figure that part out either.”
Some, though, warn Massachusetts may be moving too fast.
New York City and New Jersey have recently decided to pause parts of their reopening — especially indoor dining, which Baker allowed to resume last week — in response to other states struggling to contain the virus. That’s good reason to be careful here, said state Representative Mike Connolly. Reopening casinos and gyms in particular, he said, was “confounding.”
“We’ve had so many other places see a resurgence and case numbers that are record-breaking on the national level,” said Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat. “I worry that it may only be a matter of time that more of those cases make their way to Massachusetts.”
But public health experts Thursday said Baker’s approach makes sense for Massachusetts, at least right now.
“This has always been an epidemic that is locally driven, not homogeneous nationally,” said Dr. Sarah Fortune, a physician and chairwoman of the department of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I think [moving to the next phase of reopening] is a reasonable decision for the state.”
Besides the low level of local transmission, experts said, Massachusetts is better-prepared to continue with reopening compared to some other states because of its investment in programs that trace infected people’s contacts, and thus keep close tabs on potential future outbreaks.
Barry Bloom, a professor and former dean at Harvard’s Chan School, said Baker’s strong team of health advisers and the state’s robust contact tracing program gave him confidence that Massachusetts will stay on top of any outbreaks to come. But he also said that with more freedom comes more responsibility, and residents would be wise to continue using masks, practicing good hygiene, and being careful to gather only outdoors and in small groups, no matter what “phase” we’re in.
“The government can only do so much and make so many recommendations,” Bloom said. “The control of the pandemic is really now in the hands of the public.”
Martin Finucane and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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