Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday his administration is lifting the state's outdoor mask mandate effective Friday and relaxing other COVID-related business restrictions beginning May 10.
Starting Friday, masks will no longer be required outdoors as long as the person can maintain social distancing, Baker announced. Regular service can begin at bars next month, when capacity limits will expand for gatherings and more, and the governor gave an expected end date for all COVID-related business regulations.
"The light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the hard work of so many, is getting closer, and we can start to look ahead with real optimism at the path forward," Baker said at a news conference.
He credited the changes to the improving public health metrics in Massachusetts. But he stressed that "face coverings will remain required in all indoor public places," and in some other situations, like at large sports venues.
"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," he said.
What Can Reopen in Massachusetts, and When
Starting on May 10, amusement parks and water parks will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity. Arenas and ballparks, which have been at 12% capacity, will move to 25% capacity. Outdoor sports events like road races and tournaments can go ahead. Indoor singing will also be allowed, though with distancing requirements.
Then on May 29, gathering limits will go up to 200 people indoors and 250 outdoors. Bars, beer gardens and wineries can also reopen without having to serve food, but customers have to be seated and spaced out six feet apart, and dance floors still won't be allowed. Street festivals and parades can go ahead at 50% capacity, if plans are approved by local boards of health. And restaurants may be allowed to increase table party size to 10 and start serving alcohol without food.
By Aug. 1, if all goes well, all other businesses will be allowed to reopen or operate without capacity limitations, clearing the way for nightclubs, indoor water parks and more.
Read the full guidance on Massachusetts' reopening plans here.
Baker left open the possibility that the day when all COVID restrictions are lifted could come sooner: "We hope that with more vaccines, and a continued success in stopping COVID, we can take this step earlier, but it will depend on everyone continuing to get vaccinated and doing the right things."
Businesses will be able to determine their own schedules for reopening, Baker noted. While he expects some people returning to offices this summer on a hybrid model, he said it seemed appropriate to him that businesses determine on their own whether workers need to be vaccinated in order to return.
"I don't think we should do this with a one-size fits all," he said. "Let organizations, based on the people they serve, the folks that work for them and whatever particular concerns they have about spread and about COVID drive their decisions."
However, the state will not be setting up similar requirements. Baker ruled that out, saying it would effectively be legally impossible, especially since the federal government said it wouldn't be setting up those rules.
"I don't think we're going to require people to be vaccinated," he said. "Still a free country, the last time I checked."
Asked about Massachusetts' state of emergency for the COVID crisis, Baker didn't say when or whether he planned to lift it, only that it's something his administration plans to continue reviewing based on the state's COVID metrics.
Baker also touched on changes his administration announced Tuesday for high school students -- they'll be required to be back in classrooms full-time on May 17.
Massachusetts' vs. Federal Outdoor Mask Guidelines
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled new guidance on outdoor mask-wearing for unvaccinated people Tuesday, ahead of a scheduled speech by President Joe Biden on the state of the pandemic response.
Asked Monday what he knew about reports that Biden could announce new mask guidance, Baker said people should "stay tuned."
"I'm not familiar with what the feds may be up to," Baker said, adding that he had a weekly call Tuesday with the White House Task Force on COVID-19.
Baker and Biden ended up holding their news conferences about the same time.
"Getting together with friends, going to the park for a picnic without needing to mask up, we're back to that place now as long as you get vaccinated," Biden said. "So go get the shot."
Ahead of the updates, Harvard Medical School professor Dr. C. Michael Gibson urged people to continue to wear masks indoors. Vaccinated people are likely "very safe" to be outside without a mask, he said.
"A lot of it comes down to the time you’ve been indoors with other people. Sixty feet may not be any safer than six feet because of the ventilation," Gibson said. "I remember a story where they looked at the projection of a cough or sneeze. It's not just three to six feet -- it goes out 25 to 28 feet when you look at all the little cloud of particles that go out. So we may have been fooling ourselves a bit, particularly if there’s poor ventilation indoors."
Reaction to Mass. Mask and COVID Rule Changes
The last time the rules changes in Massachusetts was a month ago, when large venues like Gillette Stadium were permitted to open at 12% capacity.
Gillette Stadium recently welcomed its first fans at a sports event in the pandemic, a New England Revolution game, and officials cheered the coming expansion to 25% Tuesday.
"With today's news, we look forward to expanding our venue's capacity and hosting full-capacity crowds once again at Gillette Stadium this summer," officials said in an announcement.
At TD Garden, the Celtics will be able to host 4,895 fans, while the Bruins will welcome 4,656 fans back.
TD Garden employees and those working concessions told NBC10 Boston they can't wait because more fans means more money. But fans were split.
"Everyone wants be at the game but, you know, you let 10 in, then you let 20 [percent] in, everyone's not six feet apart so, you know, it's an uphill battle. We'll see what happens," said Marcy Harrison, a Celtics fan.
The Boston Marathon is scheduled for Oct. 11, and Tom Grilk, president of race organizer Boston Athletic Association, said the relaxed guidelines enhance plans already in the works.
"We will bring runners out from Boston in buses that are timed to get to the start at the time the runners are scheduled to start. So they’ll get off the buses and fairly promptly after that move to the start line and just go," he said.
Increased gathering size capacity is great news for couples planning on getting married. Blair Mitcham is a wedding planner whose brides have had to cut back for months.
She has one whose date is June 11. "We've been shipping out invitations in batches to see where the guidance falls and she texts me this morning and says she can mail out another 25 invites today," Mitcham said.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said he's not advocating for things to be shut down for longer, but he questioned how fast Massachusetts is moving.
"The idea of 200 people gathering indoors when 40% of our adults and about half of our population isn't vaccinated? That's a pretty high-risk event, he said.
Neighboring states had already announced they are relaxing mask mandates and business restrictions.
New Hampshire announced earlier this month that it was lifting its mask mandate and rolling back all other pandemic-related measures on May 7. Last week, officials in Connecticut announced that all outdoor restrictions will be lifted on May 1 and all other business restrictions will be phased out starting May 19.
On Thursday, Rhode Island's governor said he will also be easing the state's outdoor mask mandate and other restrictions on May 7.