Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday announced that lower-risk communities in Massachusetts will be able to move to Step 2 of Phase 3 of the state's reopening plan, effective Monday.
The move comes as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to tick up in Massachusetts. But Baker, speaking at a news conference at the state house, appeared confident that further reopening is safe in communities not at high risk of transmission.
Massachusetts hasn't progressed in its reopening plan since early July, when Phase 3, Step 1, went into effect. But this time, the move is dependent on local transmission of the virus, which the state Department of Public Health began tracking with a color-coded map in August.
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"Lower-risk communities are the grey, green and yellow towns" on the state's weekly community-level spread map, Baker explained, though those communities must have maintained that status for three straight weeks.
Communities labeled red for three straight weeks will stay in or move back to Phase 3, Step 1, requiring businesses that could open under Step 2 to close again, officials said
Changes in Phase 3, Step 2 of the Mass. Reopening Plan
The activities allowed in Phase 3, Step 2, include indoor and outdoor recreation businesses. They "have not led to significant transmission in other states," Baker said.
Also new in the Baker administration's update are changes to gathering sizes for outdoor gatherings in public and at event venues. For Phase 3, Step 2, communities, they'll be allowed to have up to 100 people, while that limit will be 50 people for Step 1 communities when the new order takes effect.
Indoor gatherings remain capped at 25 people everywhere in Massachusetts and outdoor gatherings in private homes stay capped at 50 people.
Other changes in the second step of Phase 3 include indoor and outdoor performance venues being allowed to open up to 50% capacity up to 250 people, though Baker said that rule doesn't apply to stadiums, arenas and other large performance venues.
Retail stores will be allowed to open fitting rooms again, while gyms, museums, libraries, driving schools and flight schools can open up to 50% capacity.
The new businesses allowed to open in Step 2 are arcades and both indoor and outdoor recreation businesses, like laser tag, roller rinks and trampoline parks.
Baker said repeatedly that he prefers people gathering in venues like those, which are structured and have rules, than getting together at a home without any rules in place.
"What has been particularly interesting about the summer is very, very few examples of significant spread have occurred in organized, structured, rule-based settings," he said. "Most of our new cases, most of our clusters, have involved unstructured, non-rule-based gatherings -- parties that have taken place between and among people where there aren't any rules."
Baker Responds to Mass. Covid Testing Numbers
Baker acknowledged a "slight increase" in coronavirus testing data in recent reports, but said much of that is down to Massachusetts' nation-leading testing -- no other state conducts more per resident, he said -- and outbreaks at colleges and universities, which has been a major focus of testing efforts.
Not counting testing at higher education institutions, Baker said the state's positive testing rate is holding at 1.7%.
And asked repeatedly about the worries some health officials have expressed about Massachusetts recent metrics, Baker emphasized that the step forward in the reopening plan is only for communities that are demonstrating consistent progress in controlling the coronavirus.
"We still have a commonwealth where hundreds of communities, based on what is becoming months of testing, simply don't have a lot of community transmission," he said.
Massachusetts reported 367 new confirmed coronavirus cases Monday and an additional 11 deaths.
There have now been 9,202 confirmed deaths and 128,793 cases, according to the state Department of Public Health. The percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive, on average, has ticked up slightly to 0.9%, according to the report.
Monday's coronavirus update came following a weekend in which more than 1,100 cases were reported in the state.
At the same time that the number of daily new cases inches upward and the number of active cases of the highly-contagious virus continues a climb it started in July, Massachusetts hospitals have also seen a spike in COVID-19 patients needing to be hospitalized.
The rise in cases and hospitalizations comes as students have returned to college campuses, elementary, middle and high schools across the state have opened their doors and the economy has continued to slowly return to some semblance of normalcy. Just last week, Baker said he was relaxing restaurant guidelines, increasing seating from 6 to 10 people per table and allowing for bar seating.
On Tuesday, Baker and other top officials noted that the state has a robust, two-pronged response to outbreaks: free testing for high-risk communities and a mobile response team that travels to places with emerging outbreaks to provide testing.
Those efforts may amplify the number of positive test results being reported in Massachusetts, but it also helps contact tracers contain outbreaks in the medium and long term, officials said.
COVID at Colleges, Universities
A spokesperson for the state told The Boston Globe Saturday that they attribute the recent rise in cases to the increased testing taking place at colleges across Massachusetts.
“We are monitoring this recent trend, which includes the impact of significant testing by colleges and universities across the Commonwealth,” Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the COVID-19 Command Center, told the newspaper. “The significant increase in testing across the Commonwealth has contributed to an increase in positive cases.”
Baker echoed that sentiment Tuesday, saying it would be a particular challenge for Boston, which was just 0.1 cases per 100,000 from reaching the high-risk red zone in last week's community report and may cross over on Wednesday.
"If you have a number of institutions that have an outbreak of some sort, it will hit your numbers in the short term," he said.
Asked about 20 Boston University students facing disciplinary hearings for holding a "beer party" on campus despite coronavirus restrictions, Baker said he was glad the case is being handled.
"Yes, we're definitely asking more of our college students, but I would argue we're asking more of pretty much everybody," Baker said.