BOSTON (WWLP/SHNS) – Gov. Charlie Baker took a major step forward Thursday to reopen parts of the economy that have been shuttered, in some cases, since the beginning of the pandemic, announcing that fans in limited numbers would begin to be welcomed back to stadiums and ballparks next month and concert halls, meeting spaces and wedding dance floors will soon be allowed to open.
Large venues were put in the fourth and final phase of the state’s reopening strategy, which was dependent on a vaccine being available. This latest move by Baker comes as coronavirus infection rates have begun to slow and more than 1.2 million people have received at least their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
“The good news associated with the drop in case counts and the drop in hospitalizations and the increase in vaccinations is part of the message there is it’s OK to go back to doing some of the things you were doing before,” Baker said.
On Monday roller rinks, as well as trampoline parks, obstacle courses, and laser tag can open at 50 percent. Interskate 91 owner Robbie Gould is hoping that this time it’s for good.
“When the news came today it was all smiles and high fives and ready to get back to work,” said Gould.
However, Gould plans to ease in to the process starting at a lower capacity.
He said, “We’ll probably take it a step easier and reduce it from there even more since we’re operating with hundreds of square feet so there’s plenty of room to skate.”
Baker said that since hitting a post-holiday peak in early January, new hospitalizations are down 63 percent and the seven-day average positive test rate sits at 1.89 percent, the lowest it’s been since October.
“We’re almost there. We’re going to continue to move forward and if all goes according to plan and the feds increase supply (of vaccine) we could be in a very different position a couple, three months from now,” Baker said.
Although AIC Hockey will just miss being able to have fans at MassMutual Center this season, Head Coach Eric Lang said the announcement is a sign of moving in the right direction.
“When you’re playing in this big empty arenas, certainly our guys will now have a better appreciation for fan support,” said Lang. “Looking forward to getting them back in the arena next year.”
The governor left a vaccine oversight hearing at the State House Thursday morning where he faced a barrage of criticism from lawmakers to travel to Salem where he made the economic reopening announcement at the Ledger Restaurant and Bar.
Starting on Monday, March 1, Baker said indoor performance venues, including concert halls and theaters, will be allowed to reopen at 50 percent capacity with a cap of 500 patrons. Indoor recreational facilities like laser tag and roller skating rinks will also be allowed to reopen starting Monday, and the capacity limit for all open businesses will increase to 50 percent, from 40 percent.
The move into Phase 4 of the state’s reopening strategy will come later in March when Baker said large venues with more than 5,000 seats can reopen at 12 percent capacity.
The rule applies to stadiums and arenas like Gillette and TD Garden and Fenway Park, where the Red Sox are planning to open their 2021 season on April 1. With an average capacity of about 37,500 fans for day and night games, that means about 4,500 spectators could be welcomed into the ballpark for home games to start.
“Opening Day is in our near future,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
Two of those stadiums — Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park — are currently home to two of the state’s seven mass vaccination sites, administering thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccine every day.
Baker said he’s talked with Fenway and Gillette officials about the issue, but didn’t have a “hard answer” about what the reopening would mean for vaccination efforts.
“Obviously they’re important players in this vaccination effort and we’re going to try to figure that one out,” Baker said.
The Red Sox subsequently released a video and a statement saying they looked forward to welcoming fans back to the park, and would give season ticket holders the first opportunity to return. The team also said it remains “fully committed to supporting the state’s vaccination program and expect Fenway Park to continue to operate as a mass vaccination site beyond the start of the regular season.”
The team said it was working closely with the state and vaccine administrator CIC Health to develop “revised operating plans” that are “well-coordinated with the Red Sox game schedule.”
“We are eager to welcome our fans back to Fenway Park this season,” Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said.
The Celtics and Bruins, who both play at the TD Garden, are also in the midst of their seasons, and the Major League Soccer season gets underway on April 17, though the schedule for the New England Revolution, who play their home matches at Gillette Stadium, has not been announced.
Polito said that beginning March 22 gathering size limits at event venues would also be relaxed to accommodate up to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, while private gatherings in people’s homes and backyards will remain limited to 25 outdoors and 10 indoors.
The new guidance on gathering sizes, Polito said, means that convention and meeting halls will be allowed to reopen in accordance with the limits, and that overnight summer camps and dance floors at weddings and other events will be permitted.
Food courts will remain closed in the first step of the Phase 4 reopening.
Restaurants beginning Monday will no longer have a percent capacity limit and will be permitted to host musical performances, with six-foot social distancing enforced and limits of six people per table and 90 minute seatings.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, cheered Baker’s decision to relax some of the restrictions in response to improving health conditions, calling it important to change the narrative from one about what can’t be done to one focused on what can be done.
“With vaccines, low positivity rates, masking, and springtime optimism, we should start seeing more people in stores, restaurants, offices, on the T, and in Fenway Park for the opener,” Hurst said. “And it is important that people can finally start planning their weddings, meetings, and events for the coming months.”
Sen. Becca Rausch, a Needham Democrat, slammed the governor’s reopening plans.
“Let me say this as clearly as possible: The reopening announcements from @CharlieBakerMA @KarynPolito today are yet more in a very long line of irresponsible, dangerous decisions. Every expert I know says we must be relentless in #COVID precautions. GOV/LG do the exact opposite,” Rausch tweeted.
Baker said that for many businesses their struggle to survive through the pandemic has been as much about the environment for commerce as it has been about the health safety rules imposed by the state.
“The single biggest thing that I think is important to remember today when it comes to restaurants and other indoor entertainment venues, and even the outdoor ones, is as COVID cases go down, as vaccines go up, you will find people more comfortable and more willing to go out and play a little bit,” he said.
Baker added, “Now we want them to go out and play with their household. We’re still very concerned about some of the issues around gatherings.”
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Keneally also joined Baker and Polito in Salem to help announce that an eighth round of small business recovery grants totaling $49 million had been awarded to an additional 1,108 businesses, bringing the total amount of state support so far to $563 million for 12,320 businesses to help COVID-19 impacted employers cover payroll, rent and other expenses.