As Governor Charlie Baker eases more pandemic restrictions on restaurants and other businesses starting Monday, public health experts warn that the moves could backfire, upending the state’s progress against COVID-19 and risking a new surge in cases.
“I’d say, ‘Charlie, you’re making a big mistake,’” said Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a Boston University professor of epidemiology. “Opening up these restaurants is going to prolong the epidemic, and increase the number of Massachusetts residents that die.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have both cautioned that states rolling back health measures now could face a resurgence of the virus.
And local epidemiologists echoed those warnings over the weekend, saying that easing the way for people to gather indoors now could reverse the progress the state has made against the coronavirus.
The move to loosen restrictions includes allowing indoor performance venues like theaters and concert halls to run at greater capacities, removing some pandemic capacity limits for restaurants, plus permitting them to host musical performances.
Baker has cited declining numbers of new daily cases and hospitalizations as evidence supporting the rollbacks in restrictions.
On Sunday, a spokesman for the administration defended the governor’s handling of the public health crisis by saying the state is leading the nation in its efforts to battle the virus.
“Massachusetts is a national leader in vaccination rates and COVID transmission is declining significantly — allowing the Commonwealth to continue the responsible, incremental process to lift economic restrictions,” said Baker spokesman Terry MacCormack in a statement Sunday.
“The administration is carefully monitoring all public health data as the Commonwealth continues to move through the phased reopening process,” the statement said.
The governor said he would allow further measures, including permitting stadiums to hold small crowds starting March 22, “as long as the public health data continues to get better.” People will have to continue wearing masks and follow other public health rules, however, the governor said.
The move to expand reopening in the state was hailed by restaurant owners Sunday, who said the changes are vital to keeping their businesses alive as the pandemic endures.
“When I heard the news and read the details [on] the Mass.gov website I was jumping for joy,” said Hamilton Rodrigues, owner of George’s restaurant in Brockton. “The governor made a step in the right direction.”
But Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, said Baker is not paying attention to other indicators that show Massachusetts is doing poorly compared to many states, including death rates due to COVID-19 and vaccine rollouts.
“The experts are saying it’s too soon to reopen,” Scarpino said. “And the response from the governor is, ‘Let’s fill the baseball stadiums.’ It’s just mind-boggling.”
Baker’s move to help businesses also contradicts guidance offered last week by Walensky, who is still a member of the state’s economic Reopening Advisory Board, which advises the governor.
Walensky, who previously led Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Infectious Diseases, warned on Friday against easing public health restrictions too soon and pointed to the threat posed by newer, more easily spread COVID-19 variants.
“It’s important to remember where we are in the pandemic. Things are tenuous,” Walensky said. “Now is not the time to relax restrictions.”
According to the CDC’s website, Massachusetts has reported 51 cases of the UK variants and two cases of the South African strain as of Sunday.
On Sunday, the state reported 52 new deaths and 1,428 cases due to COVID-19. The latest data released by the Department of Public Health tallied the total number of cases at more than 550,000. The coronavirus death toll in Massachusetts was 15,796 Sunday.
The number of coronavirus vaccinations administered in Massachusetts rose by 65,284 to 1,736,477, state officials reported Sunday.
There are exceptions to the reopening.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh has decided to go slower in Boston and is delaying moves such as allowing live music in restaurants and permitting indoor performance venues to open until March 22.
Somerville will remain in a limited Phase 3, Step 1 stage of the reopening until at least March 15, according to a statement.
The timing of the state reopening coincides with efforts by Baker to bring K-12 students back into their school buildings for in-person learning.
“The strategy the governor is employing is risky, and unnecessarily so,” Scarpino said. “There is no reason we couldn’t wait for another month to be sure the reopening of the schools goes safely.”
MacCormack, in the Sunday statement, said the Baker administration has prioritized reopening schools and made resources available to every district, including the nation’s “first statewide surveillance testing program.”
“The data is clear and the CDC reported in January that community transmission rates have little to no impact on schools’ abilities to offer safe, in-person learning,” the statement said.
Walensky also has the support of Fauci, who sided with his CDC colleague during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.
“Amen to what Dr. Walensky said,” Fauci said when he was asked whether it was premature for states like Massachusetts and New York to move ahead with easing pandemic restrictions.
“I would think it is” premature, Fauci said, noting that declines in the nation’s COVID-19 cases have recently plateaued at about 70,000 new cases per day.
“Just watch over the next several days to a week. If we do this, and start coming up [with additional cases], then we are going to go right back to the road of rebounding,” Fauci said.
Dr. David Hamer, a Boston Medical Center physician and a Boston University epidemiologist, said he agreed with Walensky and said public health officials need more time to study the coronavirus variants before easing more restrictions.
“I’d rather have a month of additional data showing a continued decline,” Hamer said.
Horsburgh said allowing more people to gather indoors and share meals sends the wrong message — that COVID-19 is going away.
“It will come back again if we let down our guard before everybody’s vaccinated,” Horsburgh said.
For restaurants, though, the eased restrictions hold promise after a bleak year.
At Paul Revere Restaurant, a small 1930s diner in Medford, Baker’s plan will only enable the owner to serve about eight more people at a time, Joseph A. Schanda Jr. said in a phone interview Sunday afternoon.
But with a pre-pandemic capacity of only 49, he said, that could make a real difference.
At one point, he was losing so much money he had to close the restaurant, he said. But now, Schanda is optimistic that patrons will slide up to the counter once again.
“Hoping — we’re going to hope — it’ll be an increase of about 20 to 40 percent more business than what we’re doing now,” Schanda said.
Miray Gokay, whose parents own Mediterranean Turkish Cuisine in Framingham, said they plan to take a cautious approach to Monday’s reopening.
“We’re kind [of] just taking it a step slower in terms of everyone’s safety,” Miray, who is a manager at the restaurant, said in a phone interview. “We’re just going to wait to see how the situation is changing for a while.”
In Brockton, Rodrigues said he plans to get back to his pre-pandemic plans of live entertainment seven nights a week, screening soccer games, and offering lunch specials. George’s has been in business since the 1930s, said Rodrigues, who bought the restaurant in 2019.
Baker’s decision is a step toward returning to normal times, Rodrigues said: “Life has to go on.”
Christina Prignano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.