Baker takes the state back a step

Worried about health care system being swamped

FOLLOWING SIX DAYS of surging COVID-19 case numbers, Gov. Charlie Baker said on Tuesday that Massachusetts is taking a step backward in its reopening plan.

“We cannot simply wait for the vaccine to get here,” Baker said at a State House press conference. “The rate Massachusetts residents are getting infected and the rate at which they are needing medical care, if all continues to move at this pace, is simply not sustainable over time, and our health care system will be put at risk.”

The governor’s decision means the state as a whole will move on Sunday from Step 2 to Step 1 in Phase 3, a retrenchment that previously had been reserved for communities deemed high risk for COVID-19 three weeks in a row or those that made the decision on their own. Boston and Somerville rank among the latter, while Lawrence, Holyoke, and many other communities fall in the former category.

Indoor performance spaces as well as indoor recreational businesses such as laser tag venues, escape rooms, and roller-skating rinks will close. All other indoor spaces, including gyms, libraries, museums, churches, hotel common spaces, retail stores, and workplaces, will be limited to 40 percent of their normal capacity to promote social distancing. Movie theaters will be allowed to remain open but with no more than 50 people per theater.

Baker last week decried “rumor mongering” about business shutdowns, and said at that time that the “Commonwealth is not planning additional closures or restrictions.” But a rapid runup in case numbers, including a high of more than 6,000 cases last Thursday, caused him to change his mind, largely because of concerns about hospitals filling too quickly.

“Once again our health care workers and our health care system are being put at risk, as the case count continues to rise,” Baker said. “The days of most people doing most of the right things are probably not enough.”

The number of virus-related hospitalizations has increased by 140 percent in the past month, and the number of patients in intensive care units jumped by 110 percent in the same time frame, Baker said.

The governor said the limit on outdoor gatherings is being reduced from 100 to 50 people, and anyone who holds an event with 25 people or more outdoors must notify the local board of health.

While Baker did not shut down indoor dining, he did change a significant amount of restaurant protocols. Diners will now be required to wear masks at all times indoors when they aren’t eating or drinking, including when ordering. Customers will be limited to 90 minutes for dining, and the number of people allowed at a table is being reduced from 10 to 6. Food court seating at malls will close during the height of holiday shopping.

“We are hoping that this will be a temporary closure and that hospitalization and public health data will stabilize,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, adding that she is urging patrons to only dine with people in their own household to reduce disease transmission.

 Baker highlighted the importance of respecting the virus with a story about how some of his friends declined to have dinner with other friends when a restaurant only had indoor seating available, and how that caused a rift in the friendship. A week later, the angry couple tested positive for COVID-19. “My friend made the right decision,” Baker said, but later clarified that the story was only intended to highlight the importance of limiting meetings with others outside of the home, not a push for indoor dining closures.

More stringent mask requirements will be implemented in offices, including mask wearing at all times, even when 6 feet away from coworkers, other than when a person is alone in their individual work space. Under the adjusted reopening guidance, Baker will urge employers to close break rooms and allow employees to work from home.

Baker said businesses will remain open because 95 percent of clusters are being reported in households.

Baker is being slammed by Democrats for not going further. “The pressure finally became too much for Baker to ignore, forcing him to finally take the extremely modest steps he outlined today,” said Democratic party chair Gus Bickford in a Twitter post. He decried the fact that Baker halted certain inpatient medical care procedures on Monday while allowing casinos to remain open. “Let that sink in,” he wrote.

The Massachusetts Public Health Association similarly critiqued the adjustments, saying the governor’s plan doesn’t address the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, fails to deal with the growing eviction issue, and allows indoor dining to remain open. “National data has revealed indoor dining to be a high-risk activity,” the organization said in a statement. “It should be stopped now, so that more restrictive measures aren’t necessary later.”

The association believes movie theaters, gyms, and arcades should also be temporary closed.

The restaurant industry appears to be grateful that closures aren’t in the works.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Freelance reporter, Formerly worked for CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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 long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, 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.

“The governor strongly defended the restaurant industry’s track record for safety and COVID related compliance, and restaurants will continue to operate within and exceed those guidelines,” said Bob Luz, executive director of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. He placed the burden of infection spread on residents who continue to gather “unregulated” in their homes, “forcing economic restrictions” at a time where there is no significant federal economic relief plan.

About 3,400 of Massachusetts’ 16,000 restaurants have closed, according to Luz, and many more are temporarily closing.