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The original timeline for easing restrictions saw some measures relaxing around Memorial Day with a full reopening planned for Aug. 1. But Gov. Charlie Baker announced on Monday that with the state on track to reach its goal of vaccinating 4.1 million residents by the first week of June, Massachusetts will see the bulk of its COVID-19 rules lifted on May 29 instead. The COVID-19 State of Emergency will end on June 15.
The updated timeline has Jonathan Levy, a professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, concerned.
The change is taking the “wants of the consumer and putting them over the needs of the worker and over the needs of our children,” he told Boston.com.
The professor argued that May 29 is less than six weeks — the rough time frame it takes for individuals to become fully vaccinated with the two-dose COVID-19 vaccines — from the day vaccine eligibility opened up to the general public 16 years old and above, April 19. Kids aged 12 to 15 didn’t become eligible for getting doses of the Pfizer vaccine until May 12.
That means that there are still going to be a lot of people in Massachusetts who have not had the opportunity to become fully vaccinated before the state lifts restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus on May 29, he said.
As of Wednesday, 3,290,072 people in Massachusetts had been fully vaccinated.
“We’re doing fantastically as a state overall, but close to half the population of the state will not be fully vaccinated by the reopening time,” Levy said.
May 29 will see the state roll back nearly all restrictions on businesses and gathering, which will allow all industries to fully reopen with no capacity limits and lift limits on public and private gatherings. The state’s mask mandate will also be rescinded on May 29 and replaced with a new advisory that reflects the recently updated guidance for fully vaccinated individuals from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Following the CDC’s recommendations, Massachusetts will allow fully vaccinated individuals — meaning they are two weeks past their required doses of the COVID-19 vaccine — to resume most activities indoors and outdoors without wearing a mask or social distancing. Masks will still be required for everyone on public transit, in schools, health care facilities, and certain other settings, and unvaccinated individuals will have to wear face coverings in indoor settings where social distancing isn’t possible.
Levy stressed that the populations that will have significant numbers of people still not fully vaccinated with the state’s reopening are children under the age of 16 and people under the age of 55 who didn’t become eligible for shots until April 19.
While the majority of children who contract COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms and recover, there are some who are at higher risk, Levy said. And if a child becomes exposed now as the state reopens, they face the added impact of missing school during the final weeks of the year.
“They will lose out on the very limited and precious in-person school time that they’ve now had the opportunity to have,” he said.
Meanwhile, there remain many in the workforce who would like to be vaccinated but have just not yet had the opportunity, facing the challenges of being unable to take time off to get the shot, or worrying that they may have to miss work and won’t be paid if they experience side effects.
Those workers, especially those from communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, are not getting prioritized with the updated timeline, he said.
“Many people who are out in the workforce are going to have not had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated by the 29th, but will be out facing the public in a reopened space,” Levy said. “We’ve not been centering those who are working in the stores and we’ve certainly not been centering our children.”
With the forthcoming changes to the state’s mask rules and reopening, workers who have not gotten the chance to become fully vaccinated may find themselves in situations where people are coming in and out of their place of employment, masked and unmasked, without the ability to know who is or isn’t vaccinated, the professor said.
“And you yourself have not yet had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated,” he said. “Then you are placed at risk. And certainly, again, our kids have not yet had the opportunity to become fully vaccinated and people who are around them are not wearing masks and that increases their risk of exposure.”
More indoor settings are going to be opening up, which, if there has not been adequate attention to ventilation, presents a higher risk of people being exposed to the virus, especially if unvaccinated individuals are going unmasked in the space, he said.
“I think there’s a need to recognize that especially those under the age of 12 are not vaccinated [and] will not be vaccinated for quite some time,” he said. “So as we think about mask policy, public spaces, we need to remember that there will be kids present who are not vaccinated and our policies need to reflect that fact. Whether it be masking, distancing, and so forth. And for workers, I think we need to do everything possible to give people the opportunity to be vaccinated.”
Levy said he would have preferred the state timed reopening with the last day of the school year, which would have emphasized prioritizing kids and ensured they don’t miss any more in-person learning. It would also have allowed others to continue to get fully vaccinated and a few more weeks to continue getting COVID-19 case counts down.
As the state goes forward with its reopening, the professor said he wants to see more efforts to bring shots to those who have not yet been able to get them and ensure there are structures in place to support individuals taking the opportunity to get vaccinated. It will also be important, the professor said, to continue making sure coronavirus cases in children also continue to fall with the reopening.
If they aren’t, there will be more work to do in driving the virus out of Massachusetts, Levy said.
“I do think that if we had waited a little bit longer, given more people the opportunity, especially in the workforce to become fully vaccinated, and certainly allowing at least our 15-year-olds to become fully vaccinated, it would have reduced the risks and made it a more comfortable and healthy setting for all,” he said.
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