COVID-19 Rules To Lift May 29; Towns, Businesses Scramble To Adjust

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

On Saturday, a small gathering from the group Cape United Patriots staged an anti-vaccine demonstration outside the Unitarian church in Chatham. Public health officials say the high vaccination rate is the reason COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted at the end of the month. TIM WOOD PHOTO

The usual scramble ahead of the summer season will be a bit more frantic this year. On Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that, as of May 29 – the Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend – all pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and public gatherings will be lifted.

The news, while joyful, provides less than two weeks for restaurant owners, retailers, town officials and civic groups to adjust their plans for the traditional start of the summer visitor season.

“It’s great news for sure, what we’ve all been waiting for,” Harwich Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cyndi Williams said Tuesday. “Everyone will have to regroup, as we still are waiting to see if there are any other specific guidelines.”

Last Thursday, the CDC issued new recommendations indicating that people who are fully vaccinated – that is, those who received their final shot at least two weeks ago – no longer need to wear masks indoors or outdoors. The surprise announcement touched off a cascade of changes, including Baker’s announcement Monday. Initially, the governor had predicted that the full lifting of pandemic restrictions would likely happen in August.

Specifically, as of May 29, all capacity limits and other restrictions on all types of businesses will be lifted. The state’s mandatory mask order will be replaced with an advisory that urges non-vaccinated people to continue wearing masks in indoor public places. But for the majority of vaccinated people, masks will no longer be required. The exceptions to that rule include all forms of mass transit and their hubs, inside K-12 schools (though masks are not needed outdoors), congregate care facilities and health care facilities, including nursing homes, assisted living and adult day programs. In these settings, employees, clients and visitors must continue to be masked.

The lifting of the COVID restrictions is possible because of the state’s extremely high vaccination rate, Baker said.

“We’ve gotten to this point because we followed the science,” he said. “We are now prepared and protected and can move forward together.”

For local health boards, the welcome news means reconsidering some of their own pandemic restrictions. In Chatham, that includes the mandatory mask zones downtown, at the fish pier observation deck, at the lighthouse overlook and at the transfer station. The health board recently considered extending the mask mandate for this summer.

“We need to decide what to do about this,” Chairman John Beckley said. “I, for one, think it’s probably time to repeal it.” Board member Ronald Broman agreed about removing most of the mask zones, but was less enthusiastic about lifting the mask requirement downtown, given how difficult it is to socially distance there.

“That’s the only one I’m iffy on,” he said.

“But Ron, the science has been concluding that outdoor transmission is almost nonexistent,” Beckley countered. His colleagues agreed, saying there is scant risk to fully vaccinated people.

The board voted unanimously to repeal the existing mask mandate effective immediately, instead adopting an advisory that urges unvaccinated people to continue to wear a mask if they cannot socially distance, anywhere in town. Health board member Richard Edwards said that if unvaccinated people opt against wearing masks and spread COVID-19, “that’s on them.”  

The Harwich board of health, which recently made a similar decision to maintain its mask zone in Harwich Port, is expected to reconsider that topic later this week.

The lifting of regulations on May 29 prompted the Chatham health board to revisit its recent vote advising the select board to cancel the Independence Day parade. Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the matter has already been raised among the staff.

“The discussion we had was that given the short time period between now and July 4, that it would be logistically difficult to try and hold the parade,” he said. In light of the new guidance from the state, the health board voted to rescind its previous advice, saying there is now no valid public health reason to cancel the event.

Independence Day parade committee Chairman Justin Bohannon said Tuesday that his group would be taking up the matter when it meets Friday.

“I can’t speak for the committee as to what the decision will be but we will definitely be ‘reconsidering’ our recommendation,” he said. The final decision must come from the select board, he noted. The board is expected to take up the matter next Tuesday.

“I would also like to ask the public to let this [process] play out,” Bohannon said. “We are aware of the change in guidance but there is a process to making and changing the decisions.”

While many businesses are expected to lift their mask requirements and undo special configurations that provided for more social distancing, others may not.

“We encourage them to do whatever works for them,” Baker said Monday. Some businesses are likely to retain some of the more popular services they offered during the pandemic, like curbside service.

“Kindness, understanding and respect will go a long way in these coming weeks,” state Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said Monday. It is perfectly acceptable for some businesses to continue to require masks if they choose to. “Respect each others’ right to get back to normal at our own pace and in our own way,” he said.

The lifting of the regulations also paves the way for towns to consider reopening town offices for in-person service. Duncanson said Chatham officials were expected to discuss a timeline for doing so this week. The state-imposed state of emergency is set to be lifted on June 15, and Baker said the delay was included in part to help lawmakers and state officials adapt to the change.

“We’re waiting to see what impact this may have on things like having to meet virtually,” Duncanson said. Some communities in the state actually reported an increase in public participation in meetings as a result of holding them virtually, and they may seek to continue that after the state of emergency is lifted, he said. Doing so would require changes to the state’s Open Meeting Law.

A number of local restaurants are offering expanded outdoor dining under the state’s emergency order, and absent any special legislation, that permission will expire 60 days after the state of emergency is lifted. That “would be potentially problematic for a lot of businesses in the middle of the summer tourist season,” Duncanson said.

With the summer season about to begin, and with visitors coming to Cape Cod in potentially unprecedented numbers, things are about to get very busy, Williams said.

“We’re excited for all of our businesses to get back to normal,” she said. “Every industry has been affected by the last 16 months. It’s going to be wonderful seeing everyone smile!”

This article has been changed to correct an error.