Island Prepares for Return to “Normal” With End of COVID Restrictions in Sight

Governor Charlie Baker announced Monday that Massachusetts would be lifting all remaining COVID-19 restrictions and capacity limits on May 29 – more than two months earlier than expected – and the indoor mask order will be rescinded.

The announcement immediately changed the calculus for Nantucket’s summer season. Island businesses, non-profit organizations and municipal leaders are now scrambling to assess the new landscape under the accelerated reopening timeline while reevaluating staffing needs and plans for events during what most had anticipated would be another summer with restrictions in place.

“With restrictions lifting, that changes the game for everyone,” said Alicia Carney, chair of the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and a member of the town’s COVID-19 Economic Task Force, as well as the new executive director of the Dreamland Theater. “Businesses, fundraisers, non-profits and events – everyone wants to find that balance between doing it responsibly and setting themselves up financially for success as well. But I think across the board, people are really excited. It’s been a long year-and-a-half for businesses.”

Nantucket’s restaurants in particular have both welcomed the news and questioned how they and their patrons will adapt to the sudden removal of the state’s strict COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s good news, but we still don’t know if everyone on this island is vaccinated or not, and now we don’t have any control over it,” said Bill Puder, co-owner of Faregrounds Restaurant, which has remained open year-round through the pandemic. “It’s going to be crazy here this summer, and no one’s going to have help. It’s a slow process, but I think we’ll be okay. We have a lot of kids coming back in June from last year.”

At The Proprietors restaurant on India Street, co-owner Orla Murphy-LaScola said she had already made the decision to open six nights instead of seven this summer, and that many of her team’s safety measures would remain in place regardless of the restrictions being lifted.

“We’re a little daunted with what we’re looking at but feel confident we’re going to do the practices we put in place and continue those because we know we can count on them to keep us safe and open,” said Murphy-LaScola, who owns The Proprietors with her husband Michael. “Mike and I were a little shocked. We had anticipated August 1. But we’re extremely grateful to the Town of Nantucket that we have this outdoor seating because we’re going to continue to practice as much social distancing as we can for diners seated for one and half hours or more, so they continue to feel safe.”

Governor Baker, citing the state’s progress made toward his administration’s goal of vaccinating 4.1 million residents by June, made the decision Monday to accelerate the reopening timeline. On Nantucket, the number of individuals fully vaccinated as a percentage of population ranks among the highest in the state, although there are questions about the island’s true vaccination rate given the uncertainties around the accuracy of year-round population estimates and the influx of the seasonal population.

Now the attention turns to Thursday’s Nantucket Board of Health meeting at 3 p.m., when members will look at the existing local emergency orders in light of Governor Baker’s new reopening timeline. Health Department director Roberto Santamaria said he was surprised the Governor’s announcement came so early, but that his recommendation will be that the island align with the state’s lifting of all restrictions on May 29th.

“Honestly, this aligns 100 percent with what I was going to suggest on Thursday, that we maintain the indoor mask mandate for at least another week so we can get another 1,000 people vaccinated and hit 50 percent of our population,” Santamaria said. “It’s in line with what we were preparing to do.”

Part of tomorrow’s Board of Health meeting will focus on Baker’s decision to lift the state of emergency in Massachusetts that was implemented last year due to the pandemic on June 15. That is a key date for municipal leaders, as the authority for local emergency orders that allowed things like outdoor dining are tied to the Governor’s state of emergency. Santamaria said the outdoor dining authorization in particular will need to be addressed. As it stands now, outdoor dining can only be permitted for 60 days beyond the end of the state of emergency, making Aug. 15th the potential end date. So the town will have to have another conversation about permitting it locally, Santamaria said, or hope the state addresses that issue for all municipalities.

Other orders tied to the state of emergency include those that allow cocktails to-go, as well as remote participation in local government meetings. Geoff Beckwith, the executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, told Politico “it’s a top priority” to keep remote and virtual options for municipal meetings.

Town Manager Libby Gibson said all those matters were on her administration’s radar following Gov. Baker’s announcement on Monday. Municipal departments are still in a “waiting pattern” she said, anticipating additional guidance from the state while advising businesses and others to have patience as the town changes gears.

“People need to understand there is going to need to be a transition from what we were doing to what we’re going to do,” Gibson said. “There’s not a switch you can flip right back on and have everything go back to normal.”

Traditional town events like the Fourth of July festivities on Main Street and the fireworks display that could technically move forward remain off the table, Gibson said. The late hour, coupled with the challenges the town has faced in hiring seasonal staff, make it simply unrealistic.

“There’s no way to reconsider the fireworks at this point – we’d have to go back out to bid,” Gibson said. “The staff’s feeling is ‘what’s done is done.’ There are lingering impacts from this whole situation that can’t be overcome at a late date like this.”

Meanwhile, the news of the accelerated reopening timeline was greeted warmly at the Chicken Box on Dave Street, which reopened yesterday at noon. The Box will be featuring its outdoor beer garden that was created last summer, as well as a new food truck operated by the downtown restaurant Backyard BBQ. Co-owners Rocky Fox, Packy Norton and John Jordin immediately brought back the live music their venue is known for with an acoustic show by Scully from Dalton & the Sheriffs last night. Norton said he had an inkling that the state would be moving up the reopening date from Aug. 1, but was waiting to hear it officially from Gov. Baker before finalizing plans for the summer.

“I heard rumors of it last week, so that was exciting news. I’m elated it got moved up,” Norton said. “I don’t know if we could go through another summer like we did last year and make it again.”

Now comes the fun part, Norton said. Booking bands and welcoming back islanders and visitors to the Box.

“Yesterday, literally, my phone died twice trying to get entertainment lined up, bands lined up,” Norton said. “If anything, I’m going to do more this year. Why not? People are starving for music. People are ready to get out and smile at each other and give each other a hug. It’s going be like the roaring 20s again.”

While the existing indoor mask order will be rescinded on May 29, the state will implement a new mask order that aligns with the latest CDC guidance and will require masks to be worn indoors only in certain settings, like nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and on public transportation.

At Nantucket Cottage Hospital, President and CEO Gary Shaw said Governor Baker’s announcement reflected the progress of the COVID-19 vaccination effort both locally and statewide.

“It’s not surprising, we knew it was going to happen, we just couldn’t tell when,” Shaw said “It tells me we’ve reached very quickly and unexpectedly a vaccine saturation point. There’s a tremendous amount of people getting vaccinated, and now we’re seeing covid drop to the point where we haven’t had a single case in several days.”

Even so, Shaw cautioned that people may need to adjust their expectations of a “normal” summer for the island given the uncertainty that Nantucket businesses and organizations faced this spring in preparing for the season.

“I think the call should go to the public to be reasonable with what can be done this summer with pivoting away from covid,” Shaw said. “We’ve planned to be conservative, resourced to be conservative, and planned to be safe. It will take a lot of juggling to get attitudes to accept this pace, going from ultra conservative to an open environment.”

On that point, Shaw said there has been no decision made yet on the annual Boston Pops on Nantucket concert at Jetties Beach, the hospital’s largest fundraiser and typically the biggest event of the summer that draws more than 7,000 people. The event was fully virtual last year, and planning efforts for 2021 remain in flux.

“There’s no final call on that,” Shaw said. “We knew as of last week it would have been X number of people. Now we know it could be a different kind of event. But as NCH President, I want to be respectful of the challenges. The sheer size of an event like that in a community that’s been scrambling to work under the government’s guidelines – how do we now navigate what we can do safely and responsibly with concern for all the logistics that have to happen? I don’t have an answer yet.”

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