Business owners are cautiously optimistic after nearly a year of pandemic-era shutdowns as Massachusetts takes a major step forward in reopening its economy on Monday, but public health leaders warn it’s still too soon to start easing restrictions.
Concert halls and theaters that closed last March can reopen — with limited capacity — and restaurants will be able to bring in live music and will no longer be bound by capacity limits as the state resumes Phase 3, Step 2, of its reopening this week.
Then, beginning March 22, sports fans will be welcomed back into stadiums in limited numbers for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit last year and wedding and event venues will be allowed to host larger gatherings.
“This is recognizing how far we’ve come with vaccination and low positivity rates and knowing things are getting better,” said Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which represents more than 4,000 small businesses. “As we approach the one-year anniversary, that’s an important message that the governor is giving and we appreciate that.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned against easing restrictions too early during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
“We will be” victorious over the coronavirus, he said, “but we’re not there yet.”
When it comes to easing public health measures, Fauci said first the country needs “many, many more people vaccinated.”
Citing reduced coronavirus case numbers statewide, Gov. Charlie Baker last Thursday increased capacity limits for most businesses to 50% effective Monday as other restrictions are lifted.
Hurst said the “most exciting news” about the governor’s announcement is that weddings can resume and “people can … start to move on with their lives.”
Restaurants must still adhere to 6-foot distances between parties and tables will be limited to six people with 90-minute limits, but Jonathan Post, owner of The Porch Southern Fare & Juke Joint said he “feels hopeful” for the future of his Medford restaurant.
“There’s finally light at the end of the tunnel. We are so close to getting back to normal,” he said.
The restaurant and music venue will fully reopen on April 1 with a plan to start booking live music “almost immediately,” Post said. Until then, The Porch is open for takeout only on weekend nights.
Post said it would be “naive” to think his business woes are behind him with so many “unknowns” still ahead.
“I want to be excited about being open,” Post said. “But the reality is, I don’t know if people are going to come out.”
Dr. Shira Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, pointed to officials’ “extremely deliberate” choice not to relax restrictions on private gatherings or mask mandates.
“While we carefully watch to see if these businesses can … make a go of it without worsening the situation, I just want to make sure that the messaging is right that we are not out of the woods, not by a longshot,” she said.