In a major move heralding the end of pandemic-era regulations, Governor Charlie Baker on Monday said Massachusetts will lift all restrictions on businesses Memorial Day weekend, moving up the full reopening date by two months. It was a telling sign that the state is returning to something akin to normal after more than a year of death, sickness, and punishing lockdowns.
As of May 29, businesses will be able to reopen at full capacity, and mask regulations that have been in effect since April of last year will be limited to just a handful of higher-risk locations. Before these changes, venues such as nightclubs and spas were slated to reopen Aug. 1 statewide and on Aug. 22 in Boston. Baker also said Monday that the state of emergency, which gave him wide latitude to impose pandemic restrictions, will be lifted June 15.
Later in the day, Acting Mayor Kim Janey said in a press conference that Boston would align with the state and also lift all COVID restrictions on May 29 — a reversal of her earlier position that the city’s reopening timetable would lag the state’s by three weeks.
The sweeping changes arrived almost exactly a year to the day that Baker first announced his four-phased reopening plan, which was rolled out — and rolled back — as COVID-19 caseloads fluctuated. The full reopening, coming two months earlier than anticipated, aligns with new guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.
While the masking restrictions will be lifted across most businesses, some will remain in place, including in K-12 schools (except for outdoor recess), health care facilities, and other settings that host vulnerable populations. Face coverings will still be mandatory for all riders on public and private transportation systems.
The state is encouraging unvaccinated people to continue wearing masks and continue distancing in most settings.
The announcement puts Massachusetts on a reopening timeline similar to those in other New England states. Connecticut will lift most pandemic restrictions this week, and Rhode Island is planning to eliminate all capacity limits May 28.
“Massachusetts is on track to reach its goal of vaccinating 4.1 million residents by early June,” Baker said at a press briefing. “We have made tremendous progress, and that’s why we are able to do what we’re doing here and what we’re proposing here today.”
Health experts were also optimistic that Massachusetts is ready for a full reopening.
David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said he doesn’t foresee the state backtracking on its progress in the coming months, as long as key COVID-19 metrics continue to trend downward.
Still, he suggested that people err on the side of caution when deciding whether to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces, such as grocery stores and movie theaters, since they don’t know the vaccination status of others.
“Transmission is decreasing, but it is not gone,” Hamer said. “I’m still a little hesitant to have everybody unmasked in indoor places where there are crowded conditions and a mixture of individuals that are vaccinated and unvaccinated.”
Business owners and advocates were largely elated about the news.
“It’s huge,” said Ryan Jones, vice president of operations for the Lyons Group, which operates more than 20 bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, including Avalon, Bleacher Bar, and Loretta’s Last Call. “I think if we have the proper direction from state, city, and the CDC, then at some point we need to get back to as close to normal as we were before.”
“Today is the best day in the restaurant industry since March 14, 2020, and May 29, 2021, is going to be an even better day,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. “We’re thrilled and ready for it.”
Many business owners said they were surprised by the news, and anticipated it will take time for things to go back to a sense of normalcy. Some may keep mask mandates in place indoors for a while. Others said that while they’re thrilled to reopen, they’re still a long way from recouping losses sustained during the last year.
Erinn Danielle, the owner of Simply Erinn’s Unisex Hair Salon in Cambridge, said she will still require clients to wear masks.
“I don’t know when I will change my mind,” she said. “I have to keep my team and my clients safe. People will not be welcomed in the salon without a mask until we are comfortable.”
Jarek Mountain, managing partner at Yellow Door Taqueria in the South End, said Monday’s announcement caught him off guard. “I was not expecting that today. Now I’m going to have to hire about 20 new people if we’re going to go back to normal,” he said. “It’s going to be wild.”
Mountain said he was glad to have some alignment between CDC guidelines and state regulations, as he was already seeing some confusion among out-of-state patrons who came in over the weekend.
Luz said that restaurants, which are currently seeing staffing shortages, will probably do a soft rollout before coming fully online to pre-pandemic levels. “We have staffing issues in every industry, and we have supply chain issues in every industry, but those things are sort of especially highlighted in the restaurant industry because we’re very labor-intensive,” he said.
More importantly, the announcement is a signal that as the state heads into its high season for tourism, “Massachusetts is open for business,” Luz said. While acknowledging that international travel isn’t likely to be as robust, he expects regional travel to take off. “I think people are going to flock to Boston,” Luz said. “The Cape and Islands are already reporting mid-summer [levels of] sales in May, which is unheard of.”
Tourism industry representative had lobbied the Baker administration to move up its final reopening date to earlier in the summer, after state officials announced the Aug. 1 date last month. At that point, Massachusetts was behind all other states in the Northeast in lifting all COVID-19 restrictions on businesses. Now, it’s squarely in the middle.
“Our industry has suffered a lot and waited a long time for this,” said Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “When they made that August announcement, we lost events, no question about it.”
Cindy Brown was among the overjoyed executives on Monday. As chief executive of Boston Duck Tours, Brown was prepared for a summer of shepherding her armada of amphibious touring vehicles at half-capacity, or 15 or 16 people instead of 35.
“I’m so relieved I can’t even tell you. It just turned our entire year around,” Brown said of Baker’s announcement. “This literally changes everything.”
The phone was ringing off the hook at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority Monday afternoon. Its first traditional conference since the pandemic began, to be held by the Heart Rhythm Society in late July, will draw about 7,000 cardiologists and other cardiac care professionals to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.
The MCCA had kept the event on the calendar even with the uncertainty around the state and city reopening rules. Most of the convention center’s events had been further delayed, long before the Aug. 1 announcement, spokesman Nate Little said. But now, the agency is getting calls from people looking to book smaller meetings and other short-term events at the BCEC, the adjacent Lawn on D, and the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center.
“The phone is ringing for the right reasons and not the wrong reasons,” said Little, referring to the drumbeat of cancellations and postponements his agency previously faced. “It was only bad news for 14 months.”
And while Baker expedited when offices could return to full capacity, most white-collar employers aren’t expected to bring back their workforces until after Labor Day. So far, that’s not changing. After all, many employees with kids have already scheduled camps and other summer plans, thinking that they would be working from home again this summer.
Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said many employers are in no hurry to rush workers back to their stressful old routines, particularly during the summer.
“There’s a lot of surveying of employees going on,” Rooney said. “There’s a lot of making sure people feel comfortable.”
Janey said that the overall drop in COVID-19 cases in the city prompted her to align the city’s reopening plan with the statewide plan. Over 58 percent of Boston residents have received at least one shot, she said.
“There’s a lot to celebrate today; the numbers are going in the right direction, and we need to keep them going in the right direction,” Janey said.
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