PROVINCETOWN — Citing a first-in-the-nation vaccine rollout and a plummeting count of Covid-19 cases, Gov. Charlie Baker moved the state’s “end of restrictions” date from the previously announced Aug. 1 all the way to May 29 — the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of summer on Cape Cod.
Baker announced the change on Monday the 17th, which means a host of limitations on businesses, social gatherings, and events would be ending in just 12 days.
The governor also previewed a new mask order that will be issued on May 29; it will mostly end the requirement to wear a mask indoors. This follows the federal Centers for Disease Control’s abrupt change in indoor-masking guidance on May 13, which has had a cascading effect on state and local mask orders nationwide.
The new mask order will still require all adults to wear masks in health-care settings and on many forms of transportation, including taxis, ride-shares, buses, and ferries, in accordance with a still-standing CDC order from January 29. Beyond that, the governor’s order will also require indoor masking by all people — adults and children, vaccinated or not — in child-care settings, K-12 schools, summer camps, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, jails, homeless shelters, residential rehabilitation facilities, and every other kind of “congregate care facility” in the state.
Venues that will be able to resume normal operations on May 29 include bars, nightclubs, sporting events, indoor performance spaces, restaurants, wedding halls, and houses of worship. Some of these, like nightclubs and dance floors, have been fully closed since March 2020; most have been open, but limited by social distancing requirements. Maintaining six feet of distance between groups of people has meant removing tables from restaurants, blocking off chairs in theaters and churches, and banning standing and mingling in bars.
In addition to limiting social interaction in these places, these rules cut deep into the bottom line of many local businesses. Now, those social distancing rules will be removed at the very beginning of Cape Cod’s summer season.
Baker cited the state’s vaccination rate and Covid case rate as reasons to move the opening date to May. Seventy-five percent of all adults in Massachusetts have received at least one dose of Covid vaccine, according to state data. Hospitalizations due to Covid are down 88 percent from their peak on Jan. 1. The new case count is down 89 percent from its peak in early January, and the positivity rate across all testing sites in the state is down to 1 percent.
“Everyone in Provincetown, our heads are spinning,” said Bob Sanborn, director of the Provincetown Business Guild. “With excitement, but also some trepidation, because this happened so quickly. There’s a worker shortage, and it takes people to run a tourist town, and everyone’s trying to pull the necessary staff together to reopen.
“You can feel it in the air, though — people are excited to get back out and reclaim their life,” Sanborn added.
The governor’s decree, combined with the new mask order, mean we could see a kind of split-screen on the Cape — adults partying on the dance floor and in bars, while children and even fully vaccinated adults wear masks indoors in schools and summer camps. According to the most recent announcements, children age six and older will have to wear masks at school — but they will not have to wear them at church, restaurants, weddings, youth sporting events, or almost any other indoor setting.
It’s possible that a future revision to this mask order would exempt vaccinated people in schools or other congregate care settings — but drawing a line between the vaccinated and unvaccinated has proved difficult in both theory and practice. None of the governor’s new protocols attempt to do so. Instead, his revised mask order will lump everyone in these “congregate settings” together — staff and clients, young and old, vaccinated and not — and require masks indoors for all of them.
Locally, Provincetown’s last remaining board of health orders expire on May 28, according to Town Manager Alex Morse — so all four Outer Cape towns will be in line with the governor’s new rules on the 29th.
Also, restaurants that were granted outdoor seating plans during Covid will be allowed to keep them for at least two months past the end of the governor’s state of emergency order, which is now set to expire on June 15. Those extra two months are mostly a function of state and Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission decisions, according to Morse.
“We are encouraging them to extend that date, as any big change on August 15 would be disruptive to many businesses,” Morse said. “I would ask that they be allowed to continue outdoor dining until late October. We are currently investigating what actions the town can take.”
One decision that would lie with the town: whether to now make a plan for fireworks on the 4th of July, or permit a regular Carnival parade in August.
“The select board has already voted not to issue permits for fireworks or a Carnival parade this season,” Morse said. At the joint meeting of the select board and the board of health on April 29, Health Director Morgan Clark pointed out that street fairs were limited to 50-percent capacity, and she saw no way to measure or control crowds of people watching fireworks.
Now that those capacity rules are ending, however, a fireworks display would not be against any state guidelines. Sanborn said the PBG was “exploring all options” regarding Carnival, including going back to the select board to seek a parade permit.