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.
Baker announced the change at a press briefing, which followed the CDC’s easing last week of indoor mask guidance for fully vaccinated people. His office also confirmed the news in a statement that declared, “The Commonwealth is on track to meet the goal of vaccinating 4.1 million residents by the first week of June and all remaining COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted effective May 29.”
The governor said he will end the State of Emergency on June 15.
In addition, he said the state will rescind its face covering order May 29, replacing it with the CDC’s new guidance for vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
“And this level of protection makes this step possible for the people of the Commonwealth,” he said.
Face coverings will still be mandatory for all riders on public and private transportation systems (including rideshares, livery, taxi, ferries, MBTA, Commuter Rail, and transportation stations), in health care facilities and in other settings hosting vulnerable populations, such as congregate care settings, according to his statement.
Monday’s announcement also included a host of changes that will affect children.
Effective May 18, “the youth and amateur sports guidance will be updated to no longer require face coverings for youth athletes 18 and under while playing outdoor sports. Effective May 29, all youth and amateur sports restrictions will be lifted,” Baker’s statement read.
The administration said it will release updated guidance for summer camps effective May 29.
Effective May 18, “guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Early Education and Care will be updated to no longer require masks for outdoor activities like recess and to allow for the sharing of objects in classrooms, in both K-12 and childcare settings. This guidance will remain in effect beyond May 29,” it said.
Non-vaccinated residents meanwhile “are advised to continue wearing face masks and to continue distancing in most settings,” and officials also “recommend fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear a face covering or social distance indoors or outdoors except for in certain situations,” the administration said.
On Thursday, the CDC said fully vaccinated people can forgo face coverings when they are in most indoor settings. There are some exceptions, and people are still required to wear masks in some places, including planes, buses, and trains.
Asked during Monday’s briefing if the accelerated reopening means COVID-19 is vanquished in Massachusetts, Baker chose his words carefully, comparing the virus to a horror villain who keeps coming back to terrorize the public over and over again.
“COVID’s a little bit like, you know, Michael Myers,” Baker said, referring to the character from the Halloween movies. “I think what I would say is that 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.” He referenced the fact that three out of four adults are on the verge of being fully vaccinated, with hopes for similar numbers as younger residents become eligible. “And when more than, or roughly 90 percent, of everybody over the age of 75 is vaccinated, you’re talking about a situation and a circumstance where . . . the people of Massachusetts have set the Commonwealth up to be successful going forward from here.”
The state’s daily COVID-19 vaccine report updated every day at 4 p.m. said that as of Sunday, more than 3.1 million residents were fully inoculated, out of 7.1 million doses administered statewide. Residents are considered fully vaccinated once they have two doses spaced weeks apart of the Pfizer or Moderna shots, or once they get a single-shot Johnson & Johnson dose.
“I think for everybody in Massachusetts, it’s been a really, really, really long year,” Baker said. “And I think the tragedies that in many cases have accompanied everything associated with COVID have been really rough on people.”
Baker also stressed that the latest CDC guidance shows there are certain situations where the federal agency believes it still makes sense to wear a mask.
Businesses, Baker said, “are going to make decisions about what they think makes the most sense for their employees and their customers, and we should all be respectful of that.”
Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, on Monday praised the new masking guidance as “the result of fourteen months of diligence and sacrifice from Massachusetts community members in the name of public health.” .
Walsh added that his group’s “hospitals and healthcare organizations will closely follow all state guidance and employ universal masking within their facilities.
The business community is also on board with Baker’s move.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said in a statement that his group strongly supported the move.
“In the days to come,” Hurst said, “employers will have decisions to make on masks and occupancy levels, as well as increased staffing needs for their establishments. During this transitionary time, we ask customers to be patient and considerate as government mandates turn into individual choices. We also strongly urge municipal officials to understand the need for consistency in policy and public messaging, and to avoid confusing our consumers and small businesses with conflicting local policy.”
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, tweeted Monday afternoon that vaccinated people don’t need masks, which would appear to put the federal government in line with Baker’s announcement earlier in the day.
“The science is clear: If you are vaccinated against #COVID19, you are safe,” Walensky tweeted. “The vaccines work. You can take off your mask & are not at risk of severe disease or hospitalization. If you are not vaccinated, you are not safe. Please get vaccinated or continue to wear a mask.”
Dr. Carole Allen, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said those who aren’t vaccinated should keep masking up whenever they leave home.
Allen said that while data “confirm that those who are vaccinated have a high level of immunity and present a low risk of infecting others if they do become infected, it is critical to recognize that because of access challenges or hesitancy, many in the Commonwealth have yet to be vaccinated.”
David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said he is optimistic that Massachusetts is ready for a full reopening. He said he doesn’t foresee the state backtracking its progress in the coming months, as long as key COVID-19 metrics continue to trend downward.
Still, he suggests that people err on the side of caution when deciding whether or not to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces, such as grocery stores or movie theaters, since they don’t know the vaccination status of others.
And while he is glad the state is asking unvaccinated individuals to continue wearing masks and social distancing, he’s unsure how that will play out.
“If non-vaccinated people need to continue wearing masks and social distancing...are they really going to do that if everyone around them isn’t?” he said. “The reality is, that is not going to happen.”
Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.
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