As more Dane County residents become vaccinated and COVID-19 case numbers continue to decline, public health officials Tuesday announced looser COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings and restaurant capacity starting next week.
It will be the second loosening of restrictions in a month; Public Health Madison & Dane County increased gathering limits to current levels on Feb. 10.
Starting on March 10, restaurants will be able to double their capacity from 25% to 50%. Limits for indoor gathering where food and drink are provided have been increased from 25 people to 150. Indoor gatherings without food and drink can have up to 350 people, up from 50.
The limit for outdoor gatherings will increase to 500 people, up from 150.
Heinrich said masking and social distancing requirements will continue to be "key mitigation requirements."
The measures come as the county’s seven-day average for daily new COVID-19 cases dropped to 56, down from a peak of 490 in November, and roughly where the county was at the beginning of the fall surge.
“We hope that even with these changes we can maintain and improve upon our progress while we work to reclaim our pre-pandemic vibrancy,” Heinrich said.
She said more than 100,000, or 18.5%, of Dane County residents have received at least one dose of the two-dose vaccine series, and more than two-thirds of those 65 and older. About a third of those seniors have been fully vaccinated.
While supply problems persist, “we are already seeing significant and hopeful progress toward our end goal of herd immunity,” Heinrich said.
She said that in the future, the metrics for re-opening will shift focus to vaccination progress over COVID-19 case numbers, although those will still be considerations.
“We will continue to factor in measures such as case counts, percent positivity and hospitalizations,” she said.
The move won support from the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce.
“We are encouraged by declining case counts and growing vaccination rates," said chamber President Zach Brandon. "While we must all remain vigilant with precautions to protect spread, it is great to see a path that could bring extreme loosening or even dissolving of restrictions in the months ahead."
The new directive seems to run counter to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. On Monday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warned that a rash of new faster-spreading and potentially more deadly COVID-19 variants threaten to undo progress made nationwide. And she expressed concern over regulation roll-backs in states run by both Republicans and Democrats.
"These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress,” she said. “Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close."
But Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said that last month’s roll-back did not result in an increase in infections.
“I feel comfortable that this order is the right move for Madison and Dane County,” she said.
But she conceded that with gatherings comes a risk of infection.
“Just because gatherings are allowed doesn’t mean that there is no risk at a gathering,” she said.