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The ‘new normal’ is coming: Mass. set to enter final phase of reopening in March

Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday that the moves on reopening were prompted by the improvement in COVID numbers.
Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday that the moves on reopening were prompted by the improvement in COVID numbers.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Massachusetts sports venues, concert spaces, and theaters will be able to reopen in coming weeks, Governor Charlie Baker announced Thursday, laying out for the first time a concrete timeline to bring back segments of the economy that have remained shuttered since the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly a year ago.

The governor said indoor performance venues will be able to open as soon as Monday at half of their normal capacity, and stadiums and arenas will be slated to welcome small crowds again three weeks later, on March 22. The moves are part of a broader reopening plan that also will end capacity limits for restaurants next week if they can continue social distancing and other restrictions for patrons.

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Baker’s announcement was a signal of cautious optimism that the state will continue to beat back the pandemic, and that his administration will make further progress on its rollout of the vaccines. Word of the changes came as Baker was testifying in an unusual hearing called by the Legislature amid mounting frustrations with the state’s troubled vaccination booking website.

Mass. set to enter final phase of reopening
Gov. Charlie Baker announced that sports venues, concert spaces, and theaters will be able to reopen in coming weeks as part of the final phase of reopening. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

“We would not be here making this announcement if we didn’t think we had seen, for . . . almost two months now, positive trends on cases and hospitalizations,” Baker said at a later briefing in Salem. He noted that about 1.2 million residents had received their first dose of a vaccine.

Baker has previously referred to the final stage of reopening as the “new normal,” and the changes he laid out Thursday evoked the prospect of a return to some of the patterns of regular life — alongside clear reminders of the ongoing crisis.

The Red Sox could play before fans at Fenway Park by Opening Day (April 1), for instance, but only with 12 percent of the normal crowd. Summer camps, too, will be allowed to reopen — though they are awaiting details on the infection control measures they’ll have to follow.

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Baker’s plan still leaves some significant parts of the economy waiting for a timeline to reopen, including bars, nightclubs, and other drinking establishments that don’t serve food.

For people in the arts and entertainment industries, who were forced to shut down abruptly last March, the planned reopening is only the start of what could be a slow and painful recovery.

Bill Blumenreich, who runs The Wilbur theater in Boston and the Chevalier Theatre in Medford, said his venues lost millions of dollars while being forced to shut down. “We never dreamt it would take this long,” he said.

While indoor venues can reopen at half capacity up to a maximum of 500 people starting Monday, Blumenreich said he plans to start up shows in April.

“We can’t really bring in big-name acts with such short notice,” he said. “It usually takes 6 to 12 months in advance.”

And Catherine Peterson, executive director of ArtsBoston, said she expects few theaters and large cultural venues to open without mass vaccination efforts completed. She said many organizations will need additional government rescue funding in the meantime.

“It’s going to take a while for arts and culture,” Peterson said. “We have fixed costs that don’t necessarily work with reduced capacity. And it’s not entirely safe to fill a theater right now.”

And of course, there’s no guarantee that Baker’s vision will come to pass. New spikes in infections, delays in vaccinations, or complications with new variants of the coronavirus could lead the administration to rethink its timeline.

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Baker’s office said residents must continue to wear masks and are encouraged to avoid contact outside of their immediate households.

Wendy Parmet, a faculty director for the Center of Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University, said members of the public should remember that the virus will remain dangerous even if the government has deemed new activities to be appropriate.

“People do need to hear some good news, but it can be dangerous to send the message that things are OK. We don’t want everybody to think ‘we got this,’ because we don’t,” Parmet said. “If this is a leap too far too fast, we won’t know that for a while.”

Baker laid out a two-step process. On Monday, Massachusetts will move into what it calls Step 2 of the third phase of reopening. In addition to performance spaces, the state will also allow indoor recreation such as laser tag, roller rinks, trampolines, and obstacle courses to resume at 50 percent capacity.

Many other indoor facilities will be able to increase their capacity to half, including arcades, fitness centers, libraries, museums, and offices.

And restaurants on Monday will no longer be subject to percent capacity limits, provided they can continue with measures including 90-minute dining limits, a maximum of six people per table, and mask requirements for people not actively eating and drinking. They’ll also be able to have live music again — in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

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Though some establishments said the capacity limits would make little difference given the other restrictions, the return of live music activates a crucial revenue source.

“The live music coming back is huge for us because a lot of our venues, their identity and DNA is based in live music,” said Ryan Jones, vice president of operations for Lyons Group, whose venues — including Lucky’s Lounge and The Lansdowne Pub — have been making do with live broadcasts of concerts held remotely.

On March 22, the state would enter the fourth phase of its reopening, allowing sports arenas to reopen to small crowds. Also on that day, gathering limits for public places not covered by rules for performance venues and arenas will increase to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors.

In addition, officials said, dance floors will be allowed at weddings. Exhibition and convention halls will also be allowed to operate with some restrictions.

“When we think of the sectors hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, the meetings industry and live events rank right up there as the most acutely impacted. They desperately need this glimmer of hope,” Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in a statement. “We are confident that our partners will remain vigilant and in compliance with public health protocols as they safely reopen their doors for gatherings.”

Michele Giacomozzi, director of catering sales at the Hampshire House in Boston, said the event venue is thrilled to soon be able to host events with more than 10 people.

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She hopes the relaxed restrictions will help the events industry as a whole, since customers can now reach out to florists, photographers, and caterers about planning.

“I think this will be a trickle-down effect to get more people in the events industry back to work,” she said.


Governor Charlie Baker entered a dining room, at Ledger Restaurant & Bar, in Salem, to give a coronavirus update and announce reopening plans for the Commonwealth on Thursday.
Governor Charlie Baker entered a dining room, at Ledger Restaurant & Bar, in Salem, to give a coronavirus update and announce reopening plans for the Commonwealth on Thursday.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff


Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.