The Gatepost Editorial: Now is not the time to reopen

Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced the state would re-enter Phase 3 Step 2 of his administration’s COVID-19 reopening plan.

Details of the entire plan are available to read on Mass.gov, and the next phase of Baker’s plan is quite alarming.

Moving to Phase 3 Step 2 of the plan means restaurants are allowed to open at 100% capacity. However, some restrictions will remain in place: a maximum of six people per table, six-feet social distancing, and a 90-minute occupancy limit.

Additionally, this phase allows large venues such as theaters, concert halls, and indoor recreation centers to open at half capacity, but capped at 500 guests. According to NBC Boston, this number does not include employees of these venues.

According to administration’s plan, stadiums, arenas, and ballparks will be allowed to open at 12% capacity after submitting a plan to the Department of Public Health (DPH)

WCVB reported the state’s largest sporting venues plan to open soon, although details have not yet been released from venue officials. A 12% capacity would allow 2,300 people in the TD Garden, 4,500 people in Fenway Park, and a whopping 7,900 people in Gillette Stadium. Local sports teams have games scheduled for March and April. 

These capacities are too high to be safe at the current moment. 

Baker announced his plan to ease restrictions at a press conference Feb. 25 at a restaurant in Salem.

Boston.com reported Baker said at the press conference, “We’ve been watching how these venues perform in other states and believe with the right safety measures in place, they can operate responsibly and safely here in the commonwealth.”

It doesn’t matter how many people Connecticut or New Hampshire officials say can safely occupy a sporting arena. Baker needs to focus on the people in his own state. 

There are still over 25,000 active cases of COVID-19 in the state. Today alone, DPH reported over 1,400 new cases.

A deadly, contagious, and airborne virus continues to spread, and Baker believes now is the time to allow restaurants – places where people sit unmasked – to open completely. He also believes now is the time to open large event venues where thousands of people will occupy the same space.

Not only does the reopening of event venues add to the risk of Massachusetts suffering from yet another COVID-19 spike, but it will also pose a problem for the mass vaccination sites. 

Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park are currently mass vaccination sites, and account for the majority of vaccinations in the state. These venues will now have to juggle hosting events as well as distributing the vaccine.

Reopening these sites for other events is an alarming proposition. Midway through February, Baker announced vaccine distribution would be directed toward mass vaccination sites and away from individual towns and cities. Reopening these sites limits their availability to provide time slots to administer doses. 

In fact, WBZ reported Fenway Park will close as a mass vaccination site March 27, with operations moving to the Hynes Convention Center in Boston – which is about half the size of the ballpark.

Now is not the time for Massachusetts to enter Phase 3 Step 2. We are not prepared.

What if there are further problems with vaccine distribution? What if the effectiveness of the vaccine is short-lived? These are all questions we cannot answer because the COVID-19 pandemic does not come with an instruction manual for leaders.

Baker is not playing it safe with his reopening strategy. While the vaccine may promote a promising future, slowing – and stopping – the spread of COVID-19 will be impossible without continuing adequate social distancing practices for the next few months. 

Our state is not ready for increased capacities, even with the guidelines Baker proposes.

Perhaps when the summer rolls around – when closer to 50% of the Massachusetts population is projected to have at least one dose – lifting these restrictions would make more sense. 

We can afford to wait a few more months. It could mean the difference between an easy transition to the “new normal” and a devastating spike in COVID-19 cases and deaths.