With a few strokes of his pen Friday afternoon, Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the end of the state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions that have shaped life in Massachusetts since last March and then added an asterisk to the notion that the state's public health crisis is over and done with.
"Unless something very odd happens I would say that it is pretty much over but ... I would put an asterisk on anything that says it's over," the governor said Friday afternoon in the Statehouse Library. "But I do believe that it is certainly on the run in a big way and, given the data as it currently exists right now, Massachusetts is in a place where we can lift these restrictions and do so with a fairly high degree of confidence that people have done the things that we needed to do to beat this thing down."
As of Saturday in Massachusetts, all industries will be permitted to open to 100 percent capacity, indoor and outdoor gathering limits will be rescinded and, with the exception of face-covering requirements for certain settings, all state-mandated COVID-19 restrictions will be lifted. The state of emergency that's been in place since March 10, 2020 will be lifted at 12:01 a.m. on June 15 under an order Baker signed Friday.
People who have not been vaccinated will be advised, but not ordered, to continue wearing face masks and to continue distancing in most settings, but the state's 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.
To facilitate the requirement that masks be worn on transportation, in health care settings and elsewhere, Baker on Friday signed what he said was a "modified declaration of a public health emergency." He said that declaration will also facilitate testing, tracing and vaccination efforts after the state of emergency ends.
The state's slots parlor and two resort casinos will also be allowed to return to mostly normal pre-pandemic operations this weekend thanks to a vote of the Gaming Commission this week. And while students and teachers will continue to wear masks and distance through the end of this school year, state guidance issued Thursday calls for fully in-person schooling without a mask mandate or required distancing in the fall.
As more people become vaccinated and the public health situation improves, the strategy to stop the spread of COVID-19 now shifts from more than a year of mandating how businesses can and should operate to an emphasis on personal risk assessment and choice. Businesses may opt to keep some restrictions in place to protect their employees and customers, and each individual can make decisions based on their own comfort level and virus conditions in their community.
Since the first coronavirus case was confirmed here Feb. 1, 2020, 660,513 people here have been infected with COVID-19 and the virus has taken the lives of 17,850 people since the first death was announced March 20, 2020. As Baker officially rescinded his COVID-19 orders Friday, public health officials estimated there were more than 7,800 active cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts.
Since Baker first laid out a roadmap to the end of COVID-19 restrictions on April 27, initially suggesting an end date of Aug. 1, the average number of daily new cases has dropped 82.5 percent from nearly 1,200 new cases a day to an average of 208 new cases a day. The average number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients is down 58 percent from more than 650 patients to an average of 274 now. Deaths are down more than 40 percent from more than 10 a day to about six a day, a low since the pandemic began. The state's average positive test rate was 1.72 percent then and now stands at 0.80 percent.
And since the governor announced his accelerated reopening timeline on May 17, new cases are down 57 percent, hospitalizations are down 29 percent, deaths are down 35 percent and the positive test rate has shed about three-tenths of a percent.
Only Tisbury, on Martha's Vineyard, remains in the category that the Department of Public Health considers to be at highest risk of COVID-19 transmission. At one point in January, almost two-thirds of the state's 351 cities and towns were "in the red."
As of Thursday's report from DPH, more than 3.5 million people in Massachusetts or about half of the entire population had received the necessary doses to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. On Friday, Baker recounted the ways people in Massachusetts adapted and adjusted to the pandemic and supported their neighbors.
"But the most important thing people did was they got vaccinated," he said. The governor added, "It is, in some respects, a profound demonstration of how people here stepped up when they really needed to to make it possible for us to put this thing behind us and I am hugely grateful that so many people did it."
Baker had said Massachusetts was on track to meet its goal of vaccinating at least 4.1 million residents by next week, but on Friday he said that milestone is more likely to come in the middle of the month. He said vaccination efforts will likely shift to focus on mobile clinics, pop-ups "and almost like home delivery" of vaccine doses through the summer.
The state is not just lifting its COVID-19 mandates, it's also encouraging people to get out of the house and dine at some of the restaurants that have been walloped over the last 15 months. The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism announced a $1.9 million ad campaign Thursday to promote dining out.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito cautioned eager diners that it may not be an immediate return to pre-pandemic norms. She said restaurants may have altered or reduced menus, might opt to adjust seating plans and could stick with a preference for contactless payment. Baker said people need to "respect and follow" whatever rules businesses decide to put in place.
"I think all of us need to continue to be what Massachusetts has been since this started, which is respectful of their friends and their neighbors and to recognize that not everybody is going to be in the same place, psychologically, as everybody else," he said. "It's been a really hard, tough year for people and I think that's something people should incorporate into the way they think about that. If somebody has a business and they'd like you to wear a mask when you come in, you should wear a mask. I'm certainly going to do that."