Gov. Charlie Baker has had enough of people holding large private gatherings and disregarding COVID-19 mitigation strategies like social distancing. So on Friday, he indefinitely paused the state's economic reopening, lowered the outdoor gathering limit and empowered the police to enforce coronavirus-related orders.
Amid reports of large parties and unauthorized gatherings, Baker said "some residents feel a bit too relaxed about the seriousness of this virus." He said he was putting the tighter restrictions in place in response to the uptick in COVID-19 cases that Massachusetts has seen in recent weeks.
"People need to understand that big groups -- especially if people don't distance and don't wear face coverings, and don't do any of the things that have been talked about and discussed time and time again -- create, in many cases, spread," Baker said during a State House press conference. "And that's a big part of why we're enhancing enforcement for local police and State Police, and why we're lowering our gathering limit for outdoor events, and why we're also, at the same time, going to engage a multidisciplinary effort around public health and public safety with the communities that have demonstrated that they are, in fact, higher-risk here in Massachusetts."
The number of active COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts rose nearly 25 percent between July 29 and Aug. 5, and has been steady or climbing for nearly a month as new COVID-19 infections are once again outpacing recoveries.
The governor said the second step of Phase 3 of the state's reopening plan will be put on hold and the gathering limit for any outdoor event will be reduced from 100 to 50 as of Tuesday. The limit for indoor gatherings will remain at 25, but Baker said the limits apply to all types of locations on public or private property. The revised order also mandates that everyone wears a mask or face covering anywhere that more than 10 people from different households could mix.
Movie theaters, gyms, casinos, museums and more were allowed to reopen in early July as part of Phase 3. The Baker administration referred to it as "Step One of Phase III" but did not fully detail what would be included in the second step of Phase 3. On the state's reopening website, it lists indoor theater or concert hall performances, and laser tag, roller skating, trampolines and obstacle courses as the activities that would be allowed to reopen in step two of Phase 3.
Baker said Friday that he was authorizing all state and local police to enforce the orders, and that people who host events -- even on private property -- that exceed gathering limits will be subject to fines. He also announced the creation of a COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team that will ramp up enforcement efforts and coordinate intervention efforts in yet-to-be-named high-risk communities.
"We have to work hard, always, harder in some respects than ever, to contain COVID-19 and keep our economy open for business," Baker said. "We also want to keep this virus out of our communities as we head into the fall so we can give our kids a chance to get back to school."
The governor's end-of-week announcement was met with scorn from the National Federation of Independent Business, which whacked Baker for slowing down the timeline to reopen for businesses.
"It is extremely disappointing that Governor Baker is choosing to roll back the state's reopening, especially with Massachusetts now facing the worst unemployment rate in the nation. Many of these businesses, that were patiently waiting for Phase 3 part 2 to begin, may now never reopen their doors again," Christopher Carlozzi, state director of the local chapter of NFIB, said. "Instead of delaying the opening of certain businesses, many taking every step imaginable to keep workers and customers safe, the administration should pursue the private gatherings that are causing the problems."
Though he said there have been issues with restaurants and bars -- "bars are closed in Massachusetts and bars masquerading as restaurants also need to be closed," he said -- the governor on Friday suggested that the coronavirus is primarily spreading in Massachusetts at social gatherings, not mainly in the workplace or at businesses that have reopened.
"When you chase a lot of the contact tracing, the biggest issue we have is people who are familiar with people being familiar with them in big groups," he said.
He added, "If you think about a party, take a Fourth of July party or even a birthday party: 40 or 50 people in somebody's backyard, moms and dads, the kids, all the rest; nobody wearing a face mask, nobody socially distancing; one or two people there who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic; hugs, handshakes, high fives, dancing, who knows, right? A whole bunch of people walk away from there little ticking clocks that are gonna go off at some point. And they go back home and they pass it along to a few people in their family and then we're off."
To deal with some of the problems reported at restaurants, Baker said Friday that his office had updated guidance for restaurants to make clear that they cannot act as de facto bars, which are slated to remain closed until there is a medical breakthrough to treat or cure COVID-19.
"One of the things that's come up a number of times is that pretzels and potato chips meets the food service requirement. It clearly doesn't," he said. "What we tried to do with the amendment of the order is make absolutely clear you need to be serving food that's prepared on-site and the people who are in your venue need to order and eat food if they're going to order a drink."
The administration also revealed plans Friday for a multi-agency COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team. Led by the Executive Office and Public Safety and Security and the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, the team will also include officials from the state's COVID-19 Command Center, the Massachusetts State Police, Department of Labor Standards, Division of Professional Licensure, Department of Public Health, Division of Local Services, Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission and the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security.
"This team will coordinate an increased enforcement effort across the state to ensure businesses and residents are aware of and are following the COVID-19 orders. By authorizing state and local police to enforce these orders, we can not only increase the number of people who will be out there and able to enforce these measures, but also ensure that there are penalties for those who refuse to make the adjustments that so many other people in Massachusetts have made and continue to make," Baker said. "Secondly, the COVID-19 Command Center will identify higher-risk communities that we can work with collaboratively to help them deal with their outbreaks. This will be different in every town, but it will include things like helping a town access additional federal relief funds if circumstances warrant it. It will also likely include significant assistance to ramp up enforcement with respect to businesses, face coverings and gathering orders."
Baker said the higher-risk communities will be identified using public health data, but will not be named until next week. He said he would have more to say on Tuesday.
"We still have some homework to do in terms of reaching out to and engaging the communities that, based on the public health data, are going to fall into this higher-risk category and we want to make sure we have a chance to talk to them and to start beginning the process of integrating our efforts with theirs before we name names," he said.