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The timeline for lifting COVID-19 restrictions in Mass. relies heavily on state avoiding another surge

Pedestrians on Newbury Street Tuesday afternoon wore face coverings. The state is lifting some mask requirements.
Pedestrians on Newbury Street Tuesday afternoon wore face coverings. The state is lifting some mask requirements.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

More than 13 months after COVID-19 first gripped Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday mapped a return to something resembling normal life, saying he will ease the state’s outdoor mask mandate by week’s ends, allow bars and street festivals to return by Memorial Day, and potentially release businesses from all pandemic-era restrictions by mid-summer.

Baker’s timeline to lift limits on gatherings and daily life by Aug. 1 will rely heavily on the state avoiding another surge in cases. The second-term Republican — who was scheduled to receive his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine Tuesday — also said the state must keep up the robust vaccination rate that’s made it a national pace-setter across several metrics.

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But after a year-plus of dour warnings and tightening rules, Baker sketched his calendar for reopening with hopeful tones, buoyed, he said, by improving public health trends — even as City of Boston officials and epidemiologists Tuesday urged a more cautious approach.

“The light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the hard work of so many, is getting closer,” Baker said at the State House. “And we can start to look ahead with real optimism for the path forward.”

Under the raft of changes Baker laid out Tuesday, masks won’t be required in many public outdoor settings starting Friday, aside from crowds where people can’t socially distance. The state’s mandate on wearing masks indoors remains in place, although Baker said he’s dropping the $300 fine violators previously could have faced.

Crowds can swell to 25 percent capacity at Fenway Park and TD Garden on May 10, the same day that road races can restart and singing will again be allowed at indoor venues.

Bars, breweries, and wineries can reopen with restrictions on May 29, with gathering limits ballooning to 200 people indoors and 250 people outdoors then, too. And businesses, including nightclubs and indoor water parks, which have remained closed since March 2020, could reopen on Aug. 1, when virtually all limits on businesses and gathering will be lifted.

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The announcement Tuesday signals that the Boston Marathon, which wasn’t run during its normal April slot this year or last, can go forward in October.

Baker’s reopening plans, however, weren’t universally embraced. Boston officials said they will delay most of the state’s reopening guidance announced Tuesday by three weeks “in an effort to accommodate the unique preparations needed by the City,” according to Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s administration.

For example, public and private gathering limits won’t increase to 200 people indoors and 250 people outdoors until June 19 in the city. Boston will allow road races, indoor singing, and certain youth and adult sports tournaments on June 1, and street festivals and parades can resume on June 19 at 50 percent of the events’ 2019 capacity.

“As we look ahead to better days, we must remember that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over,” Janey said. “Reopening our economy does not remove our personal and collective responsibility to remain vigilant.”

The governor released his plan the same day the CDC eased its own guidance on wearing masks outdoors, saying fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces anymore unless they are in a big crowd of strangers.

Nearly 2.4 million people in Massachusetts have been fully vaccinated, and Baker on Tuesday touted the state as having the second highest amount of first doses delivered per capita in the country under one metric.

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He avoided, however, tying the state’s reopening to vaccines. He said Tuesday it would be “almost impossible” to impose different rules at the state level for those vaccinated and those not vaccinated without some type of federal rules also in place.

Baker also said he doesn’t support creating a state-level “vaccine passport,” such as a smartphone app or piece of paper used in some other countries so people can prove they’re vaccinated when they access gyms, restaurants, and other places.

“If there’s not going to be a national strategy, I don’t think states should be doing this one at a time,” he said Tuesday.

Public health officials said Tuesday they feared the timeline may reopen the state too quickly. Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a former Massachusetts public health commissioner, said the state should wait until enough people are vaccinated to reach herd immunity before allowing indoor gatherings of 200 people, which Baker’s timeline would allow a month from now.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, echoed that, arguing that infection rates here are well above the national average, even as they’ve improved over the last month. The state is averaging 1,194 cases over the last week, a drop from 1,215 the day before.

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“The idea of 200 people gathering indoors when 40 percent of our adults and about half of our population isn’t vaccinated — that’s a pretty high-risk event,” Jha said. “There are a lot of reasons to get infection rates lower, and I’m worried that this is not going to help.”

To business owners and others, the announcement couldn’t come soon enough. Dan Kenary, chief executive of Harpoon Brewery parent Mass. Bay Brewing Co., called the reopening timeline “welcome news,” even if he considers some of the initial rules unnecessarily restrictive. “We’re all looking forward to the cookouts, block parties, and get-togethers we missed last summer,” Kenary said.

Suzette Coppola, co-owner of the 3,000-seat Indian Ranch amphitheater in Webster, had hoped for a July 1 date for a full reopening, but said she’s still excited to have a precise date in hand — Aug. 1 — after months of wondering.

“As a concert venue, we’ve just been guessing about when we would be open,” Coppola said. “I have learned how to plan, replan, and replan again. . . . We are looking forward to this year, and getting people back on the stage.”

The reopenings will initially come with limits. Bars, breweries, wineries, and distilleries can return on May 29, but with seated service only, a 90-minute seating limit, and no dance floors — restrictions restaurants currently face. And while more people can plop into a Fenway Park seat next month, mask rules still apply.

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“If you go to Fenway Park, whether you’re vaccinated or not, we’re going to expect you to wear a mask and socially distance. Period,” Baker said.

Baker’s plan could ultimately mean that many businesses and offices will welcome back employees under varying conditions.

The governor said he has no plans, for example, to require state workers to be vaccinated before returning to their offices, though he acknowledged that some private businesses likely will.

But he bristled at questions about the dichotomy, saying a “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t work across a wide array of sectors.

“It’s still a free country the last time I checked,” Baker said. “And my company — our company, the executive branch of state government — is a lot different than many other businesses in Massachusetts.”

Travis Andersen, Danny McDonald, and Anissa Gardizy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto. Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer.