Updated 3:20 p.m.
Never mind Aug. 1. The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend — May 29 — is the new target date for the end of nearly all remaining COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts.
By that date, more than two months ahead of the schedule announced less than three weeks ago, Massachusetts intends to lift its COVID-19 restrictions, though masks will still be required in certain settings like transportation, in schools and at health care facilities. And the state of emergency that's been in place since March 10, 2020 will be lifted June 15, Gov. Charlie Baker announced late Monday morning.
The announcements represent a significant milestone in the state's fight against the coronavirus that's fueled a global pandemic and upended nearly all aspects of human life since the start of 2020. But the governor made clear that the end of government-mandated restrictions does not necessarily mean the end of the public health threat.
"COVID is a little bit like, you know, Michael Myers," he said, referring to the horror film franchise character with a knack for surviving to make it into yet another sequel. "We have made tremendous progress and that's why we are able to do what we're doing here and what we're proposing here today ... the people of Massachusetts have set the commonwealth up to be successful going forward from here, but obviously this is something we're all going to have to continue to pay attention to and we will."
In a press conference at the Statehouse, Baker said the new reopening timeline — May 29 was initially going to be the next, but not final, step towards a more complete reopening — is made possible by an effort that has the state in line to meet its goal of vaccinating 4.1 million residents by the first week of June.
"Massachusetts is effectively battling back in its campaign against the virus," Baker said Monday. "Nearly every student in the state is back in the classroom and we've reopened nearly every industry. We're safer, smarter, and better equipped in this fight than any time since it began."
New COVID-19 cases are down 89% since Jan. 8 and COVID-19 hospitalizations are down 88% since Jan. 1, Baker's office said. The state's positive test rate has fallen from 8.7% on Jan. 1 to an even 1% as of Sunday. Since Baker last laid out a reopening timeline on April 27, the average of daily new cases is down 6%, the average hospitalization level has declined 39%, and the average daily number of COVID-19 deaths has fallen by about 45%.
Rules will start to change Tuesday in the Bay State. Effective May 18, guidance for youth and amateur sports will be updated to allow kids under the age of 18 to play outdoor sports without having to wear a mask and to allow kids at school or child care to go mask-free when outdoors for activities like recess. Schoolkids will also be allowed to share classroom items again.
On May 29, all industries will be permitted to open to 100% capacity, gathering limits will be rescinded and, with the exception of face-covering requirements for certain settings, all state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted. Non-vaccinated individuals will be advised to continue wearing face masks and to continue distancing in most settings, but a new advisory will recommend that vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear a face covering or social distance indoors or outdoors except for in certain situations.
"After more than a year of restrictions, protocols, and guidelines, a full Massachusetts reopening is spectacular news for small businesses," National Federation of Independent Businesses State Director Christopher Carlozzi said after Baker's announcement. "Now the real work begins to repair a battered small business economy and bring residents of the commonwealth back into the workplace."
Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst said Baker's announcement Monday "sends a clear message about the importance of economic investment and recovery now that we have done what we needed to do to be safe. With our vaccinations, we are all now clearly safe to shop, dine, entertain, travel and return to work."
But he also asked that consumers, many of whom are as eager to get back to their usual shopping and dining patterns as the businesses are to welcome them back, be "patient and considerate as government mandates turn into individual choices."
"In the days to come, employers will have decisions to make on masks and occupancy levels, and as well as increased staffing needs for their establishments," he said.
Alluding to the possibility that some cities and towns may not go along with Baker's new timeline, Hurst added, "We also strongly urge municipal officials to understand the need for consistency in policy and public messaging, and to avoid confusing our consumers and small businesses with conflicting local policy."
As with every other step in the state's reopening effort, municipalities are free to move slower than the state. Boston and Somerville, in particular, have frequently adopted modified versions of the state's reopening steps and have been more cautious in their own returns to normal.
Baker reiterated Monday that "communities that don't want to go as aggressively or as far as we're proposing to go" can make whatever decisions they feel are appropriate "and we will support that."
Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who led the administration's economic reopening advisory group with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, said the 12 days until May 29 are intended to give business owners and communities that are ready to reopen "time to plan for a return to normal, and to make adjustments to their physical spaces, and to modify their staffing levels."
"Kindness, understanding and respect will go a long way in these coming weeks," Kennealy said.
Carlozzi, the state director of NFIB, said businesses also face "major staffing challenges" as they prepare for shoppers to return in greater numbers this summer.
"A real indicator of a return to normalcy will be the many 'help wanted' signs being removed from storefront windows," he said.
Though most Massachusetts residents will likely circle May 29 as the milestone date on their calendars, the June 15 expiration of Baker's state of emergency declaration is just as significant to those who closely follow state government. Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10, 2020 to deal with the coronavirus that was just beginning to surge across the planet and his administration's restrictions, guidelines and executive orders have shaded nearly all aspects of life in the Bay State since then.
"The lifting of the Governor's orders under the Cold War era Civil Defense Act could not come a day sooner. For nearly 421 days, countless businesses and individuals have had their rights and freedoms completely ignored," Paul Craney, spokesperson for MassFiscal, said, though Monday was the 434th day under Baker's state of emergency. MassFiscal has supported the New Civil Liberties Alliance as it pursued legal avenues to overturn many of Baker's executive orders, arguing that the Republican governor overstepped his authority.
"A functioning democracy cannot survive under a temporary state of emergency that is prolonged like we endured ... Massachusetts should never ever go through this again," Craney said.
During Monday's press conference to announce the last reopening step, the lieutenant governor pointed out that it was literally a year in the making.
"May 18 of 2020 was the day that we came to this room and announced the first phase of our reopening plan. And here we are, almost to the date, a year later with a full reopening," Polito said Monday. "It would not have happened without all of you working so hard along this course and along this journey."