Gov. Charlie Baker announced he will ease capacity limits on Massachusetts restaurants, gyms and other businesses effective Monday.
Baker said he will increase the 25% capacity limit to 40% effective at 5 a.m. Monday based on recent declines in coronavirus hospitalizations and case counts. The 25% capacity limit has been in place since Dec. 26.
When the stricter capacity limits were announced, the seven-day average positive test rate was 5.94% and 1,991 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized. As of Wednesday, the positivity rate was 3.3% and 1,635 people were in hospitals for COVID-19 care. Baker said the state has seen "positive trends" in COVID-19 metrics since 2021 began.
"People's work is paying off on this one," he said. "We just need to keep it up for a few more months."
Baker said the state will remain in Phase 3, Step 1 of its reopening plan, meaning indoor performance venues and indoor recreational businesses will remain closed until further improvements in the COVID-19 metrics are seen.
Indoor gatherings will continue to be limited to 10 people and outdoor gatherings 25 people.
"We know that these restrictions have been and continue to be enormously difficult for large and small businesses, their employees and individuals everywhere, but we're making progress in this battle against COVID, and everyone's hard work and preparation is now making it possible for us to continue to step back to what we might call a new normal," Baker said.
Earlier on Thursday, Baker gave brief remarks after touring the Bentley Academy Innovation School in Salem.
The governor continued to push for more schools to provide in-person learning, citing Bentley Academy as a positive example. He stressed that almost all of the research that has been done indicates that schools are not spreaders.
"For us, the critical challenge is to make sure the kids don't fall behind," he said. "This is a school that works primarily with many kids and families that would be defined as at risk. By making it possible for them to be in person or to participate remotely, this school and this district is doing what I would describe as the work that needs to be done to make sure that kids don't fall behind."
Baker's announcement Thursday came amid continued scrutiny over the state's COVID-19 vaccine rollout, with many people complaining about a difficult-to-navigate website and lack of appointments.
The governor on Wednesday said over 654,000 residents have already been vaccinated, and about 120,000 new appointments are expected to be made available this week. About 55,000 new appointments went live on Thursday at the state's mass vaccination sites alone.
"I get how unhappy people are with the rollout," Baker said after touring the Fenway Park mass vaccination site Wednesday. "There are some reasons for that unhappiness that have to do with the decisions we made out of the gate, which I do not apologize for."
Those decisions, he said, included vaccinating hospital workers and other health care workers first, and then structuring the rollout to address congregate care facilities, the homeless population and others considered high risk.
"I think we did the right thing here," Baker said. "But I get the fact that meant other people had to wait."
"I'm not happy with where we are," he added. "I know a lot of other people aren't either. We have work to do, and we know that."
The chair of the state's COVID-19 vaccine advisory board also explained Wednesday what he thinks can be improved.
Dr. Paul Biddinger specializes in emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital. In a one-on-one interview with NBC10 Boston, he said the state has to focus on improving efficiency and accessibility.
"The fundamental problem is clearly that there is not enough supply, but that's out of our control," he said. "What we have to control is how easily people can get their vaccine and make sure they know what's going on."
Biddinger also acknowledged the frustrations with the state's online portal for booking vaccination appointments.
"I think it's really important for people to get access to a centralized booking system. I don't know if it's quite a bridge too far to unify all of the different hospital systems, community health centers and mass vaccination sites, but we need to make this easier for everyone," he said.
Biddinger said he was concerned to see Massachusetts was using only about half of its vaccine supply, but he is hopeful now that the numbers have started to improve.
"Now, it's at 60%, so some of these efforts to really improve utilization, to make sure shots are flowing from supply right into arms as quickly as possible, I think those are starting to pay off," he said.
Biddinger said the board receives countless letters from groups advocating to be moved up in vaccine priority. He said the board has to make "heart-wrenching" choices. NBC10 Boston asked him why Massachusetts is not yet allowing educators to get shots when almost half the country is already prioritizing them.
"I can't comment directly what might happen with teachers, but I think it's unbelievably important to make sure we think about how we can get schools back and how we can bring back teachers," he said.
Biddinger said the board can only make recommendations to the state and cannot speak about them publicly, but discussions about who should get priority are ongoing.
There are 125 operating vaccination sites in Massachusetts, with another 40 expected to be online by the the middle of the month. To find a site near you, go to mass.gov/covidvaccine
The mass vaccination sites at Fenway and Gillette Stadium returned to regular hours Tuesday after some appointments were changed and vaccinations were curtailed due to Monday's storm, according to CIC Health, which is running both sites.
The Reggie Lewis Center in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, which was supposed to open Monday as a mass vaccination site for residents ages 75 and older, opened Tuesday instead. Appointments that were scheduled for Monday were automatically rescheduled for Feb. 8.
A mass vaccination site at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Danvers north of Boston opened Wednesday.
Generally, Massachusetts' coronavirus metrics have been trending down, according to the Department of Public Health's interactive coronavirus dashboard, with the average number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths peaking in the second week of January. The testing rate peaked Jan. 1. The figures reported daily are important for tracking trends with the virus' spread, though a single-day change may not reflect a larger trend, and may reflect incomplete data.
Massachusetts reported 2,186 new confirmed coronavirus cases and an additional 53 deaths on Wednesday.
There have now been 504,564 confirmed cases and 14,415 deaths, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Another 293 deaths are considered probably linked to COVID-19.