As the Massachusetts vaccine rollout lurches forward and local COVID-19 rates continue to decline, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Thursday afternoon that the state will move into the final phase of his administration’s reopening plan next month “as long as the public health data continues to get better.”
During a press conference at a restaurant in Salem, the governor announced plans to move to the first step of Phase 4 of the reopening plan on March 22, allowing large venues that can host over 5,000 people — including Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, and TD Garden — to reopen with a 12 percent capacity limit.
“We’ve been watching how these venues perform in other states and believe with the right safety measures in place they can operate responsibly and safely here in the commonwealth,” Baker said.
The new rules come ahead of the Red Sox’ opening day game on April 1 at Fenway Park, as well as before the beginning of the New England Revolution season later that month. The Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins have been playing in a fan-less TD Garden for several months. The announcement Thursday also comes after the New England Patriots told season ticket holders Tuesday that they were “very optimistic” about having fans back at Gillette Stadium for the 2021 season.
TD Garden officials subsequently announced Thursday that the first Bruins game with fans will be hosted on March 23, followed by the first Celtics game with fans on March 29.
In addition to the 12 percent occupancy limit, fans at TD Garden will be required to wear a mask at all times, except while actively eating or drinking in their seat; tickets will be mobile-only; and seats will be sold in pods of two and four, with at least six feet between groups.
The Red Sox said Thursday that they will announce details about their health and safety protocols in the coming weeks, though they did say that season ticket holders will get the first opportunity to attend games at Fenway Park.
Additionally, the team said they expect Fenway Park to continue to operate as a mass vaccination site “beyond the start of the regular season” and are working to “develop revised operating plans as necessary for the month of April and beyond.”
Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium are two of the state’s high-volume mass vaccination sites, which Baker has described as central to the state’s rollout. Asked how their operations will be affected by allowing teams to bring back fans, Baker said Thursday that he didn’t “have a hard answer.”
“They’re important players in this vaccine effort,” he said. “We’re going to try to figure that one out.”
Officials at CIC Health, which runs the two vaccination sites, have previously said they would not be scheduling vaccination appointments at Fenway Park during live games, but planned to adjust hours around them.
A spokesman for the New England Revolution said Thursday that they also expect Gillette Stadium to remain “fully operational” as a vaccination site during the soccer team’s season, but that additional details of the plan hadn’t been worked out (the MLS still hasn’t announced team schedules).
The move into Phase 4 — which officials long maintained wouldn’t arrive until a vaccine or effective therapy for COVID-19 was available — won’t happen in a single jump.
Massachusetts is currently in the first step of Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan, which requires indoor performance venues and recreational attractions like roller rinks, trampoline parks, laser tag venues, and escape rooms to be closed.
However, as a first step, the administration will allow cities and towns to move to the second step of Phase 3 next Monday, March 1, allowing those venues to reopen and increasing capacity limits across many business sectors and settings — including stores, gyms, offices, places of worship, movie theaters, and museums — from 40 percent to 50 percent.
Percentage-based capacity limits on restaurants, first implemented in December, will be removed, though other restrictions — including face-covering and social-distancing rules, as well as limits capping tables at six people and 90-minute stays — will remain in place.
Then, three weeks later, depending on public health data, the administration will allow communities to make the move into Phase 4.
Similar to the second and third phases, Phase 4 will also consist of multiple steps. That means some businesses and events included in Phase 4 — including bars, nightclubs, amusement parks, street festivals, parades, road races, and “ball pits” — will have to continue to wait to reopen.
“We expect that, with continuing positive health trends, we will be able to open other Phase 4 industries at a later date as step two of Phase 4,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said.
In addition to large venues, stadiums, and ballparks, the first step allows exhibition and convention halls to reopen on March 22 in order to host meetings and events, subject to gathering limits and other rules. Dance floors will also be allowed, though only for weddings and events. The first step of Phase 4 also allows overnight camps to reopen this summer.
Beginning on March 22, officials also plan to increase gathering limits for event venues and in public settings to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors. However, outdoor gathering limits for private residences and backyards will remain at a maximum of 25 people, while limits on private indoor gatherings — which officials say primarily drove the spread of COVID-19 last fall — will remain at 10.
The announcement came shortly after Baker defended the state’s vaccine rollout amid criticism from state lawmakers during a virtual COVID-19 response oversight hearing Thursday morning — and amid a remarkable decline in COVID-19 rates since early January.
During the hearing, Baker noted that the number of new COVID-19 cases being reported each day in Massachusetts is “at its lowest level since November” and has dropped by 75 percent since the peak of the second surge in January.
Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 during the second surge “have also fallen dramatically,” Baker said; after peaking in early January at 2,428 statewide hospitalizations, there were just 875 patients hospitalized due to the virus Wednesday in Massachusetts.
Still, during the hearing, Baker said he was “very nervous” about the more contagious COVID-19 variants that he said “are causing some real havoc in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world.” And during the press conference in Salem, he conceded the possibility that “because of a variant or something else” COVID-19 rates could begin to rise again.
However, he said the vaccine rollout’s early focus on immunizing health care workers and residents who are most at risk of severe illness or death due to COVID-19, combined with the declining infection rates, put the state in a better position. He noted that the primary reason for the restrictions imposed last spring and fall were the concerns that COVID-19 hospitalizations could overwhelm the health care system and affect its ability to care for people with other medical conditions.
“While I certainly worry about the variants and while I think we are in a race against time to get people vaccinated as fast as we can,” Baker said that he thinks the approach “means that, as we continue to vaccinate people, we will take additional risk associated with the health care system off the table.”