BOSTON (SHNS) – Indoor performances and recreational activities such as laser tag can resume next week in Massachusetts communities with lower COVID-19 transmission rates, and many businesses will also be permitted to increase their capacities, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday.
On the same day that a coalition of public health experts and workers’ rights advocates urged Baker to implement additional precautions amid growing COVID-19 spread, the governor signed an executive order pushing Massachusetts forward in its phased reopening plan.
His order will loosen a range of restrictions, but only in communities deemed “lower risk” based on three weeks of municipal-level infection data that the administration uses to produce its color-coded risk charts.
“We’ve learned a lot from watching what’s going on in other states, especially in the northeast region, and similar changes elsewhere have not led to significant transmission there,” Baker said at a press conference.
Starting on Monday, Oct. 5 in those lower-risk communities, indoor performance venues can reopen at 50 percent capacity, topping out at 250 people, while outdoor performance venues already open can increase their capacity to the same levels.
Many other recreational activities can also resume, including trampoline parks, obstacle courses, roller rinks and laser tag, at half capacity in the same list of approved cities and towns.
The order also includes changes for businesses that are already operational. Retail stores can open their fitting rooms, while gyms, museums, libraries, and both driving and flight schools can increase the allowable numbers of patrons to half of their capacity.
Outdoor gatherings hosted in public settings can expand to 100 people, up from 50, in lower-risk communities but must remain capped at 50 people in any city or town deemed high risk. Other gathering limits will not change, staying flat at 25 people indoors and 50 people at private events outside.
The updates will not take effect in all cities and towns. To qualify, a community must have eight or fewer cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents — color-coded as gray, green or yellow on the map that the Department of Public Health produces — in three consecutive weekly reports.
Any municipality that surpasses that threshold, which earns a red designation, must keep current restrictions in place starting next week.
Twenty-one communities have been coded red in at least one of the past three weekly DPH reports: Chatham, Chelsea, Dedham, Everett, Framingham, Holliston, Lawrence, Lynn, Lynnfield, Marlborough, Methuen, Monsoon, Nantucket, New Bedford, Plainville, Revere, Saugus, Tyngsboro, Winthrop, Worcester and Wrentham.
The administration has deemed cities and towns in the middle, yellow-colored category as “moderate risk,” but Tuesday’s executive order essentially flattens the definitions into two groups: high risk, and everything else under the term “lower-risk.”
Baker said Tuesday that “a bunch of bouncing back and forth between green and yellow” was responsible.
“One nursing home outbreak, one football party, one thing, because you’re basically going from under four (cases per 100,000 residents) to over four, turns you from green to yellow,” Baker said.
With the announcement, Massachusetts is poised to enter the second step of Phase 3 in the administration’s reopening plan. The state has been frozen in the first step since August, when Baker imposed a pause amid a spike in confirmed cases of the highly infectious coronavirus.
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy touted Tuesday’s development as a “major milestone.”
The decision by Baker to push ahead with further reopening the economy ran counter to the message a coalition of public health, education and workers’ rights advocates delivered Tuesday.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity sent a letter to the governor signed by close to 30 organizations and well over 100 individuals asking him to refocus his administration on controlling the coronavirus and protecting essential workers from exposure risks.
Their list of requests included stronger job protections for workers so that they can stay home if they are sick and still get paid, investments in rental assistance, more detailed public health data, and support for schools to upgrade ventilation in older buildings and provide staff with training and protective equipment.
“Governor Baker, we know you are under pressure from some business interests, but we also know you can do better. We are asking you to show leadership that looks ahead, and protects public health, with comprehensive policy,” said Lady Lawrence, from Housing=Health.
Facing multiple questions about additional reopening amid those warnings, Baker defended his decision by touting the state’s “national-leading levels” of testing and its isolation and contact tracing efforts.
The businesses that are open or set to reopen must follow rules designed to limit transmission risks, Baker said, drawing a contrast with the kinds of parties and other private events that continue to make headlines.
“What has been particularly interesting about the summer is very, very few examples of significant spread have occurred in organized, structured, rule-based settings,” Baker said. “Most of our new cases, most of our clusters, have involved unstructured, non-rule-based gatherings — celebrations, parties that have taken place between and among people where there aren’t any rules.”
Baker argued that “the greatest risk” comes from unsupervised or more casual gatherings where attendees are not vigilant about maintaining distance or wearing face coverings.
“If people are going to go inside, which they probably will, I would much rather have them go inside in organized and supervised ways with rules than in unorganized, unsupervised ways with no rules,” he said.
Several public health metrics have indicated a recent increase in COVID-19 transmission in Massachusetts.
On Monday, the same day that indoor and outdoor expanded dining options took effect, the state reported another 367 cases of COVID-19 and 11 new deaths. That followed a weekend that saw more than 1,100 new cases diagnosed and a positive test rate creeping up to between 2 percent and 3 percent.
One metric that gauges how quickly the virus is spreading puts Massachusetts behind only Wyoming in how fast the virus is growing. The state’s Rt value of 1.21 is the highest it’s been since March 15, and reflects the average number of people infected by one infectious person. A value of less than one indicates the virus is under control.
“Despite these warnings that COVID-19 is trending upward in Massachusetts, in just the last few days we’ve seen really concerning actions by the governor,” Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, said before Baker’s afternoon press conference.
Connolly was referring to Baker’s decision last week to increase restaurant seating capacity to 10 people per table outdoors and indoors, and to allow bar seating for food service for the first time since March.
He also faulted the governor for “ignoring” a law passed by the Legislature requiring more detailed virus reporting on nursing homes, and joined with several other community leaders in urging Baker to reconsider his intention to allow the eviction moratorium to expire on Oct. 17.
“Housing equals health is our name because that is true. Well, here’s a COVID-19 truth. Eviction equals death,” said Lawrence.
Asked about gaps in adhering to similar data-reporting requirements, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the administration made clear when Baker signed the law that it would need “three to four months” to upgrade its systems accordingly.
“We continue to increase the data fields that we’re reporting on and we will continue to comply with it,” Sudders said. “But anyone who’s ever been involved with system changes (knows): you can’t just immediately put into place the systems and technology upgrades you need.”
She noted that, immediately after signing the legislation, Baker filed a follow-up bill seeking additional enforcement mechanisms to help state public health authorities ensure they get the data they need from relevant sources.
A version of that second bill (S 2840) has been sitting in the Senate Ways and Means Committee since July.
Baker and Sudders also praised the Stop the Spread program as a key factor in reopening progress. The governor said 18 high-risk communities have “basically unfettered access to free testing” as a result of the state-run initiative.
Since the DPH began reporting community-level data, Chelsea has decreased its rate from 32 cases per 100,000 to 22, while Lynn has similarly dropped its rate from 23 per 100,000 to 11, Sudders said.
Dr. Caroline Buckee, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that as fall turns into winter, it will become important to tailor policies to limit outbreaks from indoor dining in restaurants, casinos, manufacturing plants, nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
She said helping people make smart choices this winter will require making more specific contact tracing data available publicly.
“What we need is a data-driven approach with transparent guidelines to try to make sure we have the information we need. Not just keeping track of how many cases there are overall, but where those cases are happening,” Buckee said.
The Baker administration has been bullish in recent weeks about schools in lower-risk communities reopening for in-person learning, but Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said that ignores the fact that teachers and staff commute to schools from various locations. She said in Sharon alone the staff comes from 80 different communities.
“There’s no denying the value of in person learning. In fact, nothing can or should replace it in normal times. But we are not in normal times,” said Najimy, calling for financial supports for schools, particularly in harder hit communities where school buildings tend to be older, for ventilation upgrades, training and personal protective equipment.
With the Legislature preparing to put together and debate a fiscal 2021 budget as soon as next month, Connolly said investing properly in schools, child care, broadband, unemployment and housing supports will require raising taxes on the wealthy.
“We need to raise significant amounts of progressive revenue to invest in the programs that will allow people to stay safe,” Connolly said.