Starting Monday in Massachusetts, diners can eat at al fresco at a restaurant, browse at a bookstore or clothing shop and book a weekend getaway at a hotel or Airbnb.
All are allowed under “phase two” of the state’s reopening plan, which Gov. Charlie Baker green-lit Saturday. Most of those businesses have been shuttered or operating with severe restrictions since the governor ordered all non-essential businesses to close in March.
“We know the closures have been extraordinarily difficult,” Baker said Saturday. “And as governor, these are in some respects some of the most challenging decisions I could ever imagine having to make. But thanks to the cooperation of so many, the trends have been moving in the right direction and we’re now able to reopen many of these businesses.”
Monday is the earliest that phase two could have begun. When the state unveiled its four-phase reopening plan, officials said each phase would follow at least three weeks from the prior. That schedule was designed to give health experts time to evaluate the coronavirus infection numbers and other health metrics.
In the three weeks since the beginning of phase one — wherein offices, barber shops, salons, labs and other businesses were opened up at reduced capacity — the number of daily diagnosed infections and the positive test rate for new cases have gone down.
The latest update on those six metrics the state is watching show that all are “in progress” or seeing a positive trend.
Not everyone thinks the state is ready. The Massachusetts Public Health Association said Saturday they opposed Baker’s decision and called for a deeper look at what populations are seeing dropping infection rates, plus enforceable protections for workers and more testing.
“Gov. Baker chose to ignore these basic standards and instead to put Massachusetts residents at increased risk of illness and death — with little in the way of data to track impact on black and Latinx residents, no meaningful protections for low-wage workers, testing that falls dramatically short of the Governor’s own goals, and — adding insult to injury — no seat at the table for the very communities that stand to be most impacted,” Executive Director Carlene Pavlos said in a statement. “The governor claims to always ‘follow the data’ and to ‘listen to the experts,’ but today he did exactly the opposite.”
But the governor on Saturday pointed to encouraging overall numbers. Since the beginning of May, the seven-day average for positive COVID-19 tests is down 82%. And the number of patients hospitalized is down 55%.
While restaurants can reopen, that doesn’t mean they all will. Bob Luz of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association says roughly 3,600 of the 16,000 restaurants that were open on March 1, pre-pandemic, will not open their doors.
Among the issues: some restaurants don’t have any outdoor seating, and efforts to secure more outside space have been unsuccessful. And many restaurants don’t have enough supplies on hand right now.
Luz said diners may have to spend more money the next time they eat out.
“Between the rise in food prices and then the rise in the costs of the pandemic itself, there’s significant cost here and I think it’s entirely likely that menu prices will probably have to go up,” he said.
It’s a similar story with hotels and motels. Paul Sacco with the Mass. Lodging Association said there are issues with re-hiring staff, restocking supplies and securing signage.
“The lodging and restaurant industry has been brought to its knees over the last couple of months and we can only hope that we’re able to recover as quickly as possible,” Sacco said.
In addition to those businesses, the health care industry will also see a loosening of restrictions next week. Hospitals and health care providers can resume routine and elective care. Only cosmetic surgery and in-person day treatment programs will remain on hold.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said providers should prioritize those who are more vulnerable and have underlying medical conditions when scheduling care.
Hospitals can begin allowing one visitor at a time starting June 10. And patients with outpatient appointments can bring one person with them.
Veterans at the state’s two Soldiers’ Homes in Chelsea and Holyoke can have visitors outdoors starting June 15, following new rules that went into effect last week for all other nursing homes.
Baker said he took advantage of those loosening restriction on nursing home visitors recently, visiting his 91-year-old father.
“He needs a haircut,” Baker said. “But other than that, he’s fine.”
Group homes and child services residences can have outdoor visits starting June 30.
Also in phase two, public outdoor pools may reopen as long as they follow restrictions implemented by local officials to curb the spread of COVID-19. Indoor pools may reopen as well, but only for use by supervised youth sports leagues and summer camps for children under 18. Swimming lessons aren’t allowed.
According to the CDC, there is currently no evidence that coronavirus can spread via pool water, and the standard disinfecting and maintenance protocols should inactivate the virus in the water.
Other businesses and industries will have to continue to wait. Still on hold are “close contact” services like nail salons and personal training, along with indoor dining. Those will wait for “step two” of phase two, though no state officials said when that might be.
Before any business can reopen, they have to meet the specific safety standards for their industry, create a COVID-19 control plan and complete a self-certification.
Phase three of the plan includes gyms and museums. Phase four is what the state calls “the new normal” and requires vaccines or other treatments to be in place before beginning. Baker said we’re still far from that.
“While we should all feel a certain sense of relief and progress with respect to the start of phase two,” he said, “we should also keep in mind that we have a way to go to get to what we would call a permanent new normal.”