Baker eases mask mandate, plans to rescind state of emergency

·4 min read

May 17—BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker is doing away with the state's mask mandate and plans to end a state of emergency as public health metrics improve.

Beginning May 29, the state will lift remaining restrictions on businesses, including capacity limits, and it will ease restrictions on mask wearing.

As of June 15, Baker said he will rescind the state of emergency that he signed on March 10, 2020, giving himself unilateral powers to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

"We have gotten to this point because we followed the science, and the people of Massachusetts did the hard work and made the sacrifices," Baker said at a Monday briefing. "We are now prepared and protected, and we can move forward together."

Masks will still be required on buses and public transportation, and inside congregate care facilities such as nursing homes, Baker said.

Public school students will be required to wear masks indoors, but the state is easing mask requirements for outdoor athletics beginning Tuesday.

Baker said the state won't require businesses to lift their own restrictions on face coverings, and he noted some may choose to keep mask requirements in place.

"We encourage them to do whatever works for them, for their employees and for their customers," he said.

Local governments will also be allowed to keep mask mandates and other restrictions in place, if they so choose, and the administration will "support it," Baker added.

Baker's announcement follows updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says people who have been vaccinated can go without a mask.

In April, Massachusetts moved into the fourth and final stage of its reopening plan by allowing large entertainment and sports venues to reopen and increasing gathering limits. Baker had set a date of Aug. 1 for the state to fully reopen but said that could move depending upon public health data.

Massachusetts is one of the last states in the Northeast to lift the mask mandate, a move that followed the CDC's new recommendation issued last week.

The CDC's latest guidance caused some confusion, however, because it doesn't eliminate mask mandates. States, local governments and private businesses must decide whether to follow it.

Federal health officials say they won't require people to prove they've been vaccinated but want them "to be honest" about ditching their masks.

"We are asking people to be honest with themselves," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"If they are vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are safe," she said. "If they are not vaccinated and they are not wearing a mask, they are not safe."

Over the weekend, the state Department of Public Health reported 1,151 new COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths.

The average positive test rate dropped to 1% over the two-day period, and about 340 people were still hospitalized with the virus.

The state has reported 656,838 infections and 17,752 deaths since the outbreak began more than a year ago.

Meanwhile, the state reported that 115,346 new doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered over the weekend, as the number of fully vaccinated people rose to 3.2 million. The state has about 7 million residents.

Business leaders praised Baker's decision to move up the state's reopening plans, saying it will help small business owners recover and boost the economy.

John Reagan, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said the move "underscores the hope that the public-health and economic crises that turned our lives, our jobs and our businesses upside down during the past year may be nearing an end."

But Reagan said the changes also mean "complex new challenges for employers who must ensure the health and safety of employees and customers who may or may not be vaccinated or be at various levels of risk for COVID-19."

John Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, also welcomed the announcement but said employers now face decisions about whether to require masks, occupancy levels and staffing.

He urged people to "be patient and considerate as government mandates turn into individual choices."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhinews.com.

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