Baker pauses reopening; cracks down on gatherings

Authorizes state and local police to enforce measures

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER is hitting the pause button on the state’s reopening efforts and ramping up enforcement of coronavirus prevention measures in an effort to limit community transmissions.

At a State House press conference on Friday, Baker said step two of Phase 3 of reopening is “indefinitely on hold” due to the rise in new coronavirus cases. This means live music venues and bars won’t be opening any time soon.

The administration on Tuesday also plans to crack down on outdoor gatherings, reducing their maximum size from 100 to 50 people. The maximum size of an indoor gathering will remain at 25 people. Those limits will apply to gatherings on both public and private property for the first time. Face coverings where more than 10 people from different households are mixing will also be required. Event hosts in violation of these orders will be subject to fines or cease and desist orders.

In the past, Baker has left enforcement of his COVID-19 orders to local boards of health. On Friday, however, he ordered and provided jurisdiction to state and local police to enforce mask-wearing and group-gathering limitations.

Baker said the tougher measures are needed to tamp down rising COVID-19 case levels and address lax behavior on wearing masks and social distancing, primarily at parties and other gatherings, in select communities.

He painted a picture of a backyard party where 50 people show up and don’t wear masks or socially distance. He said one or two people may show up with the coronavirus or may have the coronavirus and be asymptomatic.

“A whole bunch of people walk away from there – little ticking time bombs that are going to go off at some point. And then they go home and pass it along to a few people in their family. And then we’re off,” Baker said.

Delaying the state’s reopening and the new restrictions come as the state’s seven-day average positive test rate (positive COVID-19 tests as a percent of all tests) remains at 2.1 percent, up from a low of 1.7 percent in mid-July. On Friday, the state reported 320 new cases from 14,740 tests, for a positive test rate of nearly 2.2 percent.

Baker also announced a multi-agency body called the Cross-Agency COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team, which will be overseen by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

The team will include representatives from the COVID-19 command center, the Massachusetts State Police, local police departments, the Department of Labor Standards, and Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, in an effort to support local communities and tamp down violations of COVID-19 regulations.

 The group will be charged with ramping up enforcement statewide and coordinating intervention efforts in higher-risk COVID-19 communities, which will be identified next week after local officials are informed.

The communities will be selected based on their COVID-19 metrics, including increasing positive test rates. Baker also announced a new effort to report town-by-town data once a week to show the spread of COVID-19 at a community level and alert Massachusetts residents to areas where problems exist.

It’s unclear what would trigger state intervention, but officials noted visitors from Rhode Island are now being required to quarantine for 14 days because that state’s positive test rate rose above 5 percent and the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 exceeded six.

The Baker administration in recent weeks offered free COVID-19 testing in 17 communities where positive test rates were rising and testing was declining. Baker on Friday extended that program until September 12 and said additional communities will be added.

The 17 communities are Agawam, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Framingham, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Marlborough, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, Taunton, and Worcester.

Marylou Sudders, the governor’s secretary of health and human services, said that initiative seems to be working, noting Lowell’s positive test rate has fallen from 4 percent to 1.1 percent. He said Lawrence has also shown progress.

Parks, playgrounds, businesses, or other entities and locations believed to be contributing to the COVID-19 spread in higher risk COVID-19 communities could be shut down, the administration said in a press release.

Baker slammed businesses for not following reopening rules, adding that “some bars masquerading as restaurants also need to be closed.”

“One of the things that has come up is that pretzels and chips meet the basic food service requirement,” he said of recent conversations with the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. “It clearly doesn’t.” Diners need to be ordering food to go with their alcoholic beverages, and business owners need to enforce that, he said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

That’s why restaurant rules have been updated to require alcoholic beverages only be served for on-site consumption if accompanied by orders for food prepared on-site.

The more stringent measures come a day after a 300-person wedding at a Gardner hotel was discovered by the Boston Business Journal. Baker said the hotel would face violations of $300 for each event at the hotel—which, according to multiple reports, allegedly hosted two weddings– and could also accrue thousands of dollars of additional fines.