If COVID-19 hospitalizations and case numbers continue to dip, Boston could soon end the rule that requires customers at eat-in restaurants and some other businesses to show proof of vaccination, Mayor Michelle Wu said Tuesday.
A little more than three weeks since the controversial mandate went into place, Wu said the city is seeing case numbers rapidly improve. And she laid out three benchmarks the city will use to determine when it might lift the rules that currently cover restaurants, bars, gyms, clubs, and theaters.
“The data makes clear that Boston’s policies to boost vaccination and public health have been working, and we are coming down from the recent Omicron-driven surge,” Wu said. “I’m encouraged by the current trends and grateful to the Boston Public Health Commission and all our partners for strong leadership to keep us heading in the right direction. The fastest way to help ensure we are relieving pressure on hospital capacity and driving down community positivity is to keep closing gaps with vaccination and boosters.”
Specifically, Wu said, the proof-of-vaccine rules will end once three criteria are met: the occupancy rate of beds in the city’s intensive care units falls below 95 percent, the city has fewer than 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations per day, and the community positivity rate, as defined by the Boston Public Health Commission, dips below 5 percent. Boston’s community positivity rate on Tuesday was around 7 percent, Wu said at a news briefing in Brighton.
“7.4 percent I believe,” she said. “So it’s been coming down quickly.”
The rule — which Wu announced in December and went into effect about three weeks ago — has met with mixed reviews from restaurants and other venues where patrons now must prove their vaccination. While some welcome the clear rules from the city, others say the burden of enforcing them is falling mainly on businesses that are already struggling mightily amid the pandemic.
And Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurants Association, said the rule has led to a dramatic decrease in business at restaurants. With the positivity rate “falling like a rock,” he said, it’s time to start inching back public health mandates that were imposed during the height of the crisis.
”It’s in the best interest for the recovery of small business in Boston to have the mandate rescinded as soon as possible,” Luz said. “We just need to remove the cloud on Boston from this rule. We need to put the genie back into the bottle.”
Wu’s office said that even if the mandate’s lifted at some point, the Boston Public Health Commission will be able to restore it in the event of future surges if necessary. That, too, worried Luz. What will happen, he asked, if the number of people hospitalized rises again or if case numbers see another startling increase.
“Just pick a date” when the mandate can be lifted, he said.
While New York and a few other cities nationally have issued similar rules as vaccination rates have grown in recent months, Boston is nearly alone among communities in and around Boston. Only Brookline and Salem put proof-of-vaccine requirements in place, while other close-in cities including Cambridge, Somerville and Arlington declined to follow Wu’s lead, despite initially signaling support for the idea. And, citing “improving public health metrics,” Salem’s Board of Health voted Tuesday to end the proof-of-vaccine requirements in that city, as well as its indoor mask requirement.
In Boston, even if the vaccine rule is lifted, requirements to wear a mask in many indoor settings would stay in place for the time being, Wu said.
“The mask mandate, we are not yet there in terms of pulling,” she told reporters Tuesday.
Boston health officials said they’ve kept a close eye on data in designing the city’s response to the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they’ll continue to do so.
“The City of Boston’s COVID-19 response has always been driven by science and data,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the city’s public health commissioner and executive director of the BPHC, in a statement. “We will remain ready to adjust our strategy, guidance, and requirements as needed to keep everyone safe.”
In addition, Wu’s office said the city had been working with businesses on implementing the mandate since it was announced in December. Before it was launched, officials said, the city hosted four webinars for small business owners that more than 800 people registered for. As of last week the city had issued no fines for violations, and just one verbal warning.
“We appreciate our small businesses for their resilience and for continuing to stay engaged with our office as we rolled out the B Together mandate,” said Segun Idowu, the city’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, in the statement. “As we monitor the public health metrics and see the numbers improve, it is our priority to lift the mandate in the safest and most effective manner possible.”