Indoor performances and recreational activities such as laser tag can resume next week in Massachusetts communities with lower COVID-19 transmission rates, and many businesses will also be permitted to increase their capacities, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday.
On the same day that a coalition of public health experts and workers' rights advocates urged Baker to implement additional precautions amid growing COVID-19 spread, the governor signed an executive order pushing Massachusetts forward in its phased reopening plan.
His order will loosen a range of restrictions, but only in communities deemed "lower risk" based on three weeks of municipal-level infection data that the administration uses to produce its color-coded risk charts.
"We've learned a lot from watching what's going on in other states, especially in the northeast region, and similar changes elsewhere have not led to significant transmission there," Baker said at a press conference.
Starting on Monday, Oct. 5 in those lower-risk communities, indoor performance venues can reopen at 50 percent capacity, topping out at 250 people, while outdoor performance venues already open can increase their capacity to the same levels.
The news drew immediate cheers from theater circles in the Berkshires, where performances this summer were held in outdoor tents with a cap of 50 attendees.
"Wow," said a breathless Julianne Boyd, artistic director of Barrington Stage Company. "We are tremendously excited by this news which will give a needed boost to the economy. We're thrilled. We are already making plans."
Many other recreational activities can also resume, including trampoline parks, obstacle courses, roller rinks and laser tag, at half capacity in the same list of approved cities and towns.
The order also includes changes for businesses that are already operational. Retail stores can open their fitting rooms, while gyms, museums, libraries, and both driving and flight schools can increase the allowable numbers of patrons to half of their capacity.
Outdoor gatherings hosted in public settings can expand to 100 people, up from 50, in lower-risk communities but must remain capped at 50 people in any city or town deemed high risk. Other gathering limits will not change, staying flat at 25 people indoors and 50 people at private events outside.
The updates will not take effect in all cities and towns. To qualify, a community must have eight or fewer cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents — color-coded as gray, green or yellow on the map that the Department of Public Health produces — in three consecutive weekly reports.
Any municipality that surpasses that threshold, which earns a red designation, must keep current restrictions in place starting next week.
Twenty-one communities have been coded red in at least one of the past three weekly DPH reports; none were in the Berkshires.
The administration has deemed cities and towns in the middle, yellow-colored category as "moderate risk," but Tuesday's executive order essentially flattens the definitions into two groups: high risk, and everything else under the term "lower-risk."
Baker said Tuesday that "a bunch of bouncing back and forth between green and yellow" was responsible.
"One nursing home outbreak, one football party, one thing, because you're basically going from under four (cases per 100,000 residents) to over four, turns you from green to yellow," Baker said.
With the announcement, Massachusetts is poised to enter the second step of Phase 3 in the administration's reopening plan. The state has been frozen in the first step since August, when Baker imposed a pause amid a spike in confirmed cases of the highly infectious coronavirus.
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy touted Tuesday's development as a "major milestone."
Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group, praised Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and the leaders of other communities throughout the county for their handling of COVID-19.
Maguire, who's BTG produced a highly successful production of the musical "Godspell" in an open-air tent in August and September, said she "found the best way to keep the virus under control is to ensure that the gathering is well-managed and well-controlled. That is what we did with 'Godspell.' "
She said she would be meeting with members of her board Wednesday to discuss "what we can reasonably get done in the next two to three months We will remain cautious as always."
Barrington Stage produced open-air tent productions of "Harry Clarke," a one-actor show that originally had been planned for indoors, and a revue of songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein in August.
The company had been planning indoor productions of Arthur Miller's "The Price" in October, and Jeffrey Hatcher's "Three Viewings" with Debra Jo Rupp later this fall. It also just finished streaming a staged reading of "Three Viewings."
In preparation for "Harry Clarke," Barrington Stage reduced the seating capacity of the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage on Union Street to a safe, socially distanced 160, along with a number of other COVID-19 safety protocols.
While the new guidance from the governor permits as many as 250 seats, Boyd said she would keep the number of seats at 160.
"We will not compromise the safety of our patrons. It's the safest way for us to do this," she said. "I'm just digesting it all."
The decision by Baker to push ahead with further reopening the economy ran counter to the message a coalition of public health, education and workers' rights advocates delivered Tuesday.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity sent a letter to the governor signed by close to 30 organizations and well over 100 individuals asking him to refocus his administration on controlling the coronavirus and protecting essential workers from exposure risks.
Their list of requests included stronger job protections for workers so that they can stay home if they are sick and still get paid, investments in rental assistance, more detailed public health data, and support for schools to upgrade ventilation in older buildings and provide staff with training and protective equipment.
"Governor Baker, we know you are under pressure from some business interests, but we also know you can do better. We are asking you to show leadership that looks ahead, and protects public health, with comprehensive policy," said Lady Lawrence, from Housing=Health.
Facing multiple questions about additional reopening amid those warnings, Baker defended his decision by touting the state's "national-leading levels" of testing and its isolation and contact tracing efforts.
The businesses that are open or set to reopen must follow rules designed to limit transmission risks, Baker said, drawing a contrast with the kinds of parties and other private events that continue to make headlines.
"What has been particularly interesting about the summer is very, 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 — celebrations, parties that have taken place between and among people where there aren't any rules."
Baker argued that "the greatest risk" comes from unsupervised or more casual gatherings where attendees are not vigilant about maintaining distance or wearing face coverings.
"If people are going to go inside, which they probably will, I would much rather have them go inside in organized and supervised ways with rules than in unorganized, unsupervised ways with no rules," he said.
Eagle staff writer Jeffrey Borak contributed to this report.