Despite infection concerns, Baker reopens more venues

New rules start Monday, but only in low-risk communities

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER will allow more indoor performance and entertainment spaces to open on Monday, but only in communities deemed low-risk for transmission of COVID-19. His decision to continue with the state’s phased reopening comes as some epidemiologists are worried about signs of a potential new coronavirus spike.

Baker, at a State House press conference on Tuesday, said he believes the biggest risk comes from people gathering informally. With cooler weather coming, his goal is to allow people to gather indoors in as low-risk way as possible. “The unsupervised, the unorganized, the familiar being familiar is really where the greatest risk is,” Baker said. “If people are going to go inside, I’d much rather they go inside in an organized, supervised way with rules than in an unorganized, unsupervised ways with no rules.”

The new rules, which go into effect Monday, will let indoor performance venues open at 50 percent of capacity, with a maximum of 250 people, excluding performers. Large venues such as arenas, stadiums, and exhibition halls are not covered by the new rules; they will not be allowed to reopen until the final phase of the state’s reopening plan, which is predicated on having a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19.

Outdoor performance venues will be allowed to increase to 50 percent of capacity, also with a maximum of 250 people, up from 25 percent and 50 people now.

Additional indoor and outdoor recreational businesses like trampoline parks, obstacle courses, roller rinks, and laser tag will be allowed to reopen. Arcades and other indoor and outdoor recreation businesses will be allowed to expand their capacity from 40 percent to 50 percent.

Retail stores will be allowed to reopen their fitting rooms.

Gyms, libraries, museums, and driving and flight schools will all be allowed to increase their capacity from 40 percent of permitted occupancy to 50 percent.

Baker is calling this “Step 2” of Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

But this time, Baker is differentiating between communities in setting reopening guidelines, based on the prevalence of the virus. The looser rules will apply only to communities that ranked yellow, green or gray for three consecutive weeks on the state’s color-coded map measuring COVID cases per 100,000 residents. The three categories all have fewer than eight cases per 100,000 residents.

Those communities with eight or more cases are considered high risk, or red, and not allowed to reopen further unless they have three straight weeks of fewer than eight cases per 100,000 people. As of last Wednesday, there were 15 communities labeled high risk, including Nantucket, Chelsea, Lawrence, Revere, Everett, Framingham, Holliston, Lynn, Marlborough, New Bedford, Saugus, Tyngsboro, Winthrop, Worcester, and Wrentham.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said if a community reopens, then ranks red for three consecutive weeks, it will have to go back to the prior step.

Although Boston is currently ranked yellow, it has 7.9 cases per 100,000 residents and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has warned that it could soon become red. The next weekly rankings will be released Wednesday. Baker said Walsh is probably correct that Boston will turn red, between an influx of college students who are undergoing an aggressive testing regimen and a recent outbreak at Brigham & Women’s Hospital.

Some epidemiologists have been warning of the potential for a new spike in cases, with college students returning to Massachusetts and colder weather sending more people indoors, where the potential for virus transmission is higher. The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has been rising the last few days and the positive test rate has also risen slightly.

A coalition of public health organizations, workers’ rights groups and community organizing groups recently wrote an open letter to Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders asking them to roll back some reopening steps, including restricting casinos and indoor dining, and putting in place new workplace safety standards. The letter cites continuing high infection rates among black and Latino residents, many of whom are essential workers who cannot work remotely.

One website that measures COVID-19 transmission now lists Massachusetts as having one of the country’s highest transmission rates.

But Baker said despite the slight uptick in cases, hospitals have “more than adequate capacity” to care for COVID-19 patients and others, and infection rates in much of the state remain low. The state has aggressive testing in place to catch new clusters and is engaging in contact tracing to notify anyone who has come into contact with a positive case. He said there are hundreds of communities that, based on months of testing data, “simply don’t have significant community transmission.”

And Baker said the biggest danger is large, informal gatherings and celebrations where precautions like wearing masks and engaging in physical distancing are not being taken. The risk is not from businesses operating under state guidelines.

“What’s been particularly interesting about the summer is 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.”

Baker said he would rather have a family visiting a roller rink that has rules around mask-wearing, cleaning, and capacity than attending a big backyard barbeque with no masks or distancing.

“The activities we’re moving forward with today have not led to significant transmission in other states,” Baker said.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The limits for private indoor gatherings will remain at 25 people, and for private outdoor gatherings at 50 people. But in another change that goes into effect Monday, outdoor gatherings at event venues and in public settings will be raised to 100 people in the lower-risk communities that have moved into Step 2 of Phase 3. These gatherings will continue to be limited to 50 people in high-risk communities. (Sector-specific guidance will allow more than 100 people in certain types of businesses, like performance spaces, but there will be additional guidelines those businesses have to follow.)