Despite signs that infection rates are edging up, Governor Charlie Baker announced Tuesday that most Massachusetts communities can relax coronavirus restrictions next week, allowing indoor performance venues to reopen and gyms, museums, and libraries to increase capacity.
The plan to move to the next step in the state’s phased reopening surprised several local infectious disease experts, who questioned the wisdom of expanding indoor activities as the state focuses on keeping infection rates low to safely open more schools. And it came as the latest daily report on virus cases showed a measurable jump in infections and hospitalizations.
But Baker, speaking at a State House news conference hours before the data were released, said officials determined through contact tracing and observing other states that the activities that will be newly permitted “have not led to significant [virus] transmission in other states.”
Starting Monday, communities regarded as lower risk will be permitted to open indoor performance venues with 50 percent capacity and a maximum of 250 people; increase the outdoor venue capacity to 50 percent with the same 250-person ceiling; open attractions such as trampolines, obstacle courses, roller rinks, and laser tag at 50 percent capacity; and open fitting rooms in all types of retail stores. The state is slated to release an updated list on Wednesday of the communities considered too high risk for these next steps, but at least 15 are currently in this red zone.
Baker emphasized the state is taking a targeted approach to reopenings by not allowing hard-hit communities to ease rules until they tamp down infections. Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said a community must be in a lower risk category for three straight weeks before it can take advantage of the loosened restrictions.
And, Polito said, if a municipality goes back into a high-risk category, it will have to revert to the more restrictive guidelines.
“We have proven we can contain this virus. We have proven we can reopen our economy," Baker said. “But people need to stay vigilant.”
Tuesday’s announcement cheered the operators of performance venues. Rick Jenkins, owner of the Comedy Studio in Somerville, said the club is dedicated to keeping patrons safe.
“Now, us small venues have to be responsible and hypervigilant,” Jenkins said. "It’s up to us to continue the momentum. It’s our part of the response.”
Hours after Baker’s announcement, the state’s daily update on coronavirus cases showed a 40 percent increase in hospitalizations, the biggest jump in over two months with 423 hospitalized, and a 26 percent jump in the rate of positive cases. The state’s closely watched seven-day average rate of positive cases is now 1 percent. But an equally telling figure, say disease experts, is the rise in the percent of daily positive cases, which hit 4.4 percent Tuesday, the highest in more than a month.
Several infectious disease specialists questioned the decision to expand reopenings — especially allowing as many as 250 people in indoor venues. They all noted that studies have indicated a higher risk occurs among indoor settings, with the virus able to become airborne and stick around longer.
“Are people going to keep their masks on? Are they going to take their masks off to drink or eat? That’s 250 people potentially pumping the virus into this indoor environment,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious diseases physician and medical director of the special pathogens unit at Boston Medical Center.
Bhadelia said she would not consider entering an indoor venue with so many people.
“The big thing we don’t know right now is how this will play out with schools and colleges,” she said.
Disease specialists also noted that the virus does not respect borders and can hitch a ride with an infected person — who may not be showing symptoms — who visits those venues where hundreds of people will now be allowed to gather indoors.
“When you have a patchwork of policies in place, individuals will often travel to do what they want to do where it’s open, whether that’s concerts or religious services, you name it,” said Northeastern University epidemiologist Samuel Scarpino.
He said he is working on a study now that clearly shows people travel to visit or attend less restrictive settings. He noted a now-infamous super-spreader event, an August wedding reception in Millinocket, Maine, an area with very few infections, was linked to more than 100 COVID-19 infections and deaths.
“I was surprised and disappointed the governor made this decision, because there are too many other things we need to prioritize like education," Scarpino said. “I would like to have seen another round of support for businesses instead because the [state’s coronavirus] numbers don’t seem to be consistent with a continued relaxation."
Communities that would not advance to looser restrictions at this point include Framingham, Lynn, Saugus, and Worcester.
Nadia N. Abuelezam, an infectious disease specialist at Boston College, said state leaders need to focus more on the bigger picture across Massachusetts, rather than continuing to follow such a targeted approach toward reopening.
“It feels like we should be paying attention to overall trends in the state and larger cities than perhaps trying to do these localized interventions," she said.
Baker also said the state is making plans for distributing coronavirus tests that are part of the 150 million the Trump administration pledged to send states on Monday. Baker said he expects the state will use its allotment to help schools, kindergarten through 12th grade, pinpoint potential infections.
“This would be a really terrific tool for school nurses and local health departments as they deal with the issues associated with hybrid learning and in-person learning,” he said.
Many disease trackers say the country is not testing nearly enough people daily to stay ahead of infections, and have expressed doubts that the 150 million shipment from the federal government, spread across the country, will be sufficient.
The tests, about the size of a credit card and made by Abbott Laboratories, can produce results in 15 minutes and don’t need to be shipped to a lab for processing with specialized equipment.
Correspondent Meghan Sorensen contributed to this report.