Amid Uptick in Cases, Baker Puts the Brakes on State’s Reopening Process

Governor Charlie Baker last Friday announced that Step Two of Phase Three of the state’s reopening plan is postponed “indefinitely,” after public health data showed an uptick in positive COVID-19 cases.

“We cannot say this enough—COVID-19 is highly contagious,” Baker said at his press conference on Friday, adding that some people in the state have been “a bit too relaxed.”

He cited several reports of big parties at various locations across the state, as well as illegal sports camps, private boat charters, and a 300 person wedding that is currently being investigated as a cluster and will “likely result in fines.”

Baker announced that new initiatives would be put in place to slow the spread of the virus, some statewide and others targeted towards specific communities that are currently experiencing an increase in cases.

“In some respects, we’re entering a new phase in our battle against COVID-19,” Baker said. He said that additional town data will be reported starting this Wednesday, and will be posted on a weekly basis.

“An uptick in cases and reports of people not adhering to the guidance means we cannot move forward at this time,” Baker said. He said that the state’s contact tracing teams have identified large pool parties, birthday parties, and other gatherings as having “contributed significantly to community spread and new COVID clusters.”

He said these gatherings are “too big, too crowded,” and “people are not being responsible.”

New guidelines statewide include reducing outdoor gatherings, on both public and private property, from a limit of 100 people to a limit of 50 people. Indoor gatherings remain at a limit of 25 people. People must remain six feet apart from one another and face coverings are required when “more than 10 people from different households will be mixing,” the state said.

He also said that restaurant guidance now states that alcoholic beverages can only be served for on-premises consumption if food is also served as part of the order. He said that “bars masquerading as restaurants” will not be allowed to operate.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said on Friday that the state’s seven day average positive test rate was about 2.1 percent, about .4 percent higher than the past couple of weeks.

On August 11, Baker said that the most recent seven day positive test rate is now 1.8 percent, but an “uptick in various communities across Massachusetts” has been seen.

He said that there are about 33 communities in the state that have more than four cases per 100,000 people (a standard for measuring cases across several states) over the past few weeks.

“These communities require specific strategies,” he said. He said that “every community is different” and will require different enforcement measures, as well as additional testing, tracing, and isolation measures.

“The good news is that the vast majority of communities are experiencing low case numbers,” Baker said, adding that 318 communities have low numbers of new cases over the past two weeks.

He also said that a map with case counts for every town in the Commonwealth will be released and  “will be updated on a regular basis going forward,” he said. It will include a color-coded ranking system of “typical traffic light colors:” red, yellow, and green to indicate concentration of cases in a particular area.

But Baker warned residents: “regardless of where your community sits, COVID is not going away.”

The Commonwealth’s Stop the Spread Initiative, which includes free testing for communities that had a higher positive test rate as well as a lower overall test rate, began last month and has now expanded to 17 communities across the state. Sudders announced that the free testing for those communities will be expanded through September 12, and the administration is “prepared” to expand the program to other communities should they need it.

“Last week, Stop the Spread communities tested 56 percent more residents than the week prior,” Sudders said. “Some communities have experienced decreases in their positivity rates.”

Baker said on Tuesday said that MassPort employees will “serve as ambassadors” to incoming travelers at places like Logan Airport to help them access the state’s traveler form and make them aware of the travel guidelines.  

Baker also announced a new COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team, which will assist in statewide enforcement and “coordinating local intervention efforts at the local level in higher risk COVID-19 communities,” according to the state. “Communities will be designated as higher risk COVID-19 communities based on public health data, including but not limited to rising trends for new cases and the percentage of positive COVID tests.” Baker said on Tuesday that the team will help to provide resources in different communities as well as help towns access additional federal funds.

Some of the statewide enforcement will include road signs, PSAs, “potential restrictions or shutdowns for parks, playgrounds, businesses or other entities and locations believed to be contributing to the COVID-19 spread in higher risk COVID-19 communities,” other public health support resources, including tracing, testing, and quarantining, among others.

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