Pandemic Restrictions End Saturday, But COVID-19 Isn’t Over Yet, Officials Warn

By: Alan Pollock

Last summer, visitors to downtown Harwich Port were required to wear masks outdoors. Last week, the Harwich Board of Health rescinded that requirement, effective immediately. Individual stores may still require masks indoors. FILE PHOTO

Starting Saturday, the state is no longer requiring fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors. Gone will be restaurant capacity limits, caps on the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings, and most other regulations related to the pandemic.

“It’s nearly time to exhale,” said State Sen. Julian Cyr, D–Truro, speaking last week on behalf of the Cape Cod COVID-19 Task Force. “Just in time for the Memorial Day weekend.” But having come about two months earlier than first predicted, the lifting of restrictions leaves some unanswered questions.

“It certainly doesn’t mean, though, that at 12:01 a.m., Commercial Street in Provincetown becomes Bourbon Street, or downtown Hyannis becomes the Vegas Strip,” he said.

COVID-19 case numbers continue to decline, and public health officials are optimistic that progress will continue in the weeks and months ahead as more people become fully vaccinated. But there are still new cases occurring, with serious illnesses and deaths still taking place across the region.

“We’ve really emerged from at least the darkest days of the pandemic,” Cyr said. But as of last week, there had still been 225 confirmed cases reported in the previous two weeks in Barnstable County, with 39 cases coming in the three days before the May 20 report. “This should be an indicator that we’re not fully out of the woods yet,” he said. “If you have not been vaccinated, you remain at risk for COVID-19.”

The town of Harwich is following no active COVID-19 cases, Health Director Katie O’Neill reported to selectmen on Monday. The town’s positivity rate has been reduced to 0.87 percent, allowing Harwich to join Chatham and Orleans in having a “gray” designation on the state’s incidence map.

Last week, the Harwich health board voted to immediately lift its mask mandate for downtown Harwich Port. The town will post signs for educational purposes reading “Not vaccinated + not wearing a mask = not protected,” with other signs warning even vaccinated people of the risk they face from COVID-19 if they are immune-compromised. The Chatham health board took a similar step in lifting their mandatory mask zones last week.

Business owners can continue to require masks to be worn by customers and employees.

“Every shop’s going to kind of be on their own policy,” said Chatham select board member Cory Metters, who owns a candy store downtown. “Support all the local businesses – the merchants, the shops, the restaurants – there’s a lot of strong opinions out there and we’ve got to be respectful of each individual entity,” he said.

“You shouldn’t shame anybody who continues to wear a mask,” board Chair Shareen Davis added. Some people are taking prescription drugs that suppress their immune systems and need to use a face covering as a precaution against infection, she said.

Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the numbers show that COVID-19 is still in the community and is a threat to those who have not been vaccinated.

“Being a tourist destination, we’re going to be getting a lot of people coming from other parts of the country where vaccination rates aren’t as high,” he added.

Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Northcross said local businesses are elated that the regulations are being rolled back, “but there’s still a lot of questions.” Chamber members are asking to know what the rules are when it comes to continuing pandemic protections in their businesses, and “the answer is, there’s going to be very little requirement by the government,” she said.

Of key interest to local restaurants is continuing the permission they received to expand outdoor dining under the commonwealth’s state of emergency declaration. When that declaration ends in June, restaurants have 60 days to remove the extra seats.

“So our elected delegation is working to extend that,” Northcross said.

“I think a lot of people really actually enjoyed being able to dine outside,” Cyr said. “It would be a shame if our exhausted workforce would have to be moving and rearranging tables on Aug. 15.”

In fact, Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation Tuesday allowing towns to extend the special permits for restaurants through Nov. 29, giving time for communities to have broader discussions about whether to allow some of the provisions to become permanent.

Baker’s bill also temporarily addresses two other executive orders set to expire on June 15. Since March, 2020, town boards, committees and commissions have been allowed to meet remotely provided that the public continues to have access to the proceedings. The legislation extends that permission through Sept. 1 to give lawmakers time to consider permanent changes to the Open Meeting Law. The bill also extends a protection issued during the state of emergency that prohibits health care providers from billing COVID-19 patients for services above and beyond what their insurance covers. The provision aims to cover patients from surprise medical bills until Jan. 1, 2022, when similar federal legislation takes effect.

Business owners are also seeking guidance about whether they can require their employees to be vaccinated, Northcross said. While getting vaccinated remains a personal choice, it appears that employers can mandate that workers show proof of vaccination in order to physically return to a workplace. More guidance is expected in the coming weeks and months, she noted.

“We’ll have to sort this out,” she said.