Massachusetts will take a big step Monday in its battle with COVID-19 by making more than 800,000 new people eligible for vaccines and easing more restrictions on businesses and public gatherings.
The state also officially will open a new mass vaccination site at the Hynes Convention Center, downgrade its longstanding travel order, and late in the week, hold its first exclusive day for inoculating teachers, child-care workers, and school employees at mass vaccination sites.
Governor Charlie Baker has repeatedly pointed to recent COVID-19 trends in Massachusetts, including declines in average numbers of new daily cases and hospitalizations since a post-holiday spike in January.
But federal and local public health officials are concerned that easing restrictions too quickly risks reversing progress, particularly as cases of variants are appearing in Massachusetts and across the country.
“The advice from public health experts is pretty clear and specific with respect to the governor’s plans around reopening,” said Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist. “And that’s that we’re moving too quickly.”
On Sunday, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, pointed to national CDC data that showed the country has been stuck at about 50,000 new daily cases for nearly two weeks.
While the country has vaccinated about 20 million people during that time, the rate of new cases has flattened because it’s “a race between vaccinations and variants,” Jha said on Twitter. “And we’re running even.”
“Opening up too fast helps the variants,” Jha said. “I want vaccinations to win.”
Monday the state plans to enact the following changes:
* About 450,000 people from ages 60 to 65 will be eligible for the vaccine, along with 360,000 workers in specific industries, including employees of grocery stores, restaurants, transit agencies, and funeral homes.
* Indoor and outdoor stadiums will be allowed to run at 12 percent capacity, including Fenway Park, TD Garden, and Gillette Stadium. (Fenway is due to close as a mass vaccination center Saturday, ahead of April 1 opening day.)
* Public gatherings will be limited to 100 people indoors and 150 people outside, while private gatherings will remain limited to 10 indoors and 25 outside.
* Exhibition and convention halls can operate if they follow gathering limits and health protocols, while overnight camps will be allowed to open this summer. Dance floors will be permitted at weddings and other events.
* The state’s travel order will be downgraded to an advisory that recommends people entering Massachusetts quarantine for 10 days. There are exemptions, including for people who have been vaccinated.
The state is also expected to hold its first vaccination day exclusively for K-12 educators, child-care workers, and school staff members Saturday at its mass vaccination sites.
Baker, in a WBZ-TV “Keller @ Large” interview Sunday, pointed to the state’s experience with easing restrictions earlier in the pandemic.
“When we reopened in the spring, we did not see a significant surge in cases and hospitalizations continued to decline until the second surge, which most people had predicted would happen in the fall,” Baker said. “And I expect that trend will continue here.”
In Boston, city officials are taking a more cautious approach to the reopening.
Public gatherings in Boston can increase to 60 people indoors and 100 people outdoors, according to a statement on the Boston Public Health Commission website. Those limits are lower than the restrictions from the state.
All private gatherings and events will be limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. Indoor and outdoor stadiums, arenas, ballparks, or venues with a capacity of 5,000 people or more are limited to 12 percent capacity, as in the rest of the state, the statement said.
In the statement, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh urged people to follow the guidance.
“It’s incumbent on each of us to stay vigilant, even as we reopen more parts of our economy. It’s thanks to everyone’s cooperation throughout the pandemic that we’re able to open further,” Walsh said.
The state Department of Public Health reported 1,678 new confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts Sunday, bringing the total to nearly 580,000. The state also reported 33 new confirmed coronavirus deaths, bringing the toll to 16,531.
The number of coronavirus vaccinations administered rose by 56,305 Sunday, the state reported, with about 2.9 million doses administered so far.
More than 1 million people in Massachusetts have been fully vaccinated, either by the two-shot vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, or the one-dose vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson, according to state data.
But the coronavirus is stubbornly hanging on in Massachusetts, including average new daily hospitalizations and deaths that remain higher than the lows reported last summer.
The state’s positivity rate, excluding testing data from higher education institutions, had declined from a high of about 9 percent in January. But that rate, which fell as low as 3 percent earlier this month, has ticked back up to 3.4 percent.
Public health officials, including Dr. Rochelle Walensky of the US Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, have repeatedly warned states about relaxing restrictions too quickly before enough people have been vaccinated.
Officials have also cautioned against such moves because of the growing number of coronavirus variants taking hold, particularly one first identified in the United Kingdom, which is more easily spread than the prevalent coronavirus strain, according to the CDC.
In Massachusetts, there have been 256 cases of the UK variant, the 10th-highest total in the United States as of Sunday, according to the CDC. The state has had seven cases of the South African variant in the state and one case of a mutation first identified in Brazil, the agency reported.
In Massachusetts, a group of public health professionals on Thursday urged Baker to delay increasing indoor capacity limits in businesses for a minimum of four weeks.
More time is needed before those changes are made, the experts said in an open letter, and they implored Baker to “prevent more avoidable illness and loss of life by delaying any changes related to indoor venues,” according to the letter.
On Sunday, Baker said in a television interview that he is not disregarding guidance from Walensky and other health experts, and they are incorporated into the decisions made by the state every day.
“I would argue that many of the changes we made in March were modest; they basically took us back to where we were at a point last fall,” Baker told WBZ-TV.
Scarpino, the Northeastern epidemiologist, said public health officials have been cautious about reopening because they want to save lives.
The state is weeks away from widespread eligibility for any adult who wants a vaccine and an anticipated increase in vaccine supply, plus the support of dollars from the recently passed federal stimulus, Scarpino said.
“Given the gains that we’ve had, given the vaccines, it’s completely unacceptable if we have to go back into another lockdown, or another big spike in cases,” Scarpino said, “when we are so close to something that will be safer.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.