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Baker rolls back phase 3 as COVID cases climb

Governor reimposes limits on size of public gatherings

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO
Baker rolls back phase 3 as COVID cases climb
Gov. Charlie Baker speaks to reporters at the State House. PHOTO: JOSHUA QUARLES, GOVERNOR’S OFFICE

Though Massachusetts was leading the northeast in COVID-19 recovery, a recent uptick in cases and deaths has alarmed state officials. In a press conference Friday, Governor Charlie Baker announced that step two of phase 3 of reopening is postponed, and outlined his new plan for enforcing social distancing rules.

White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx warned Friday that one of the latest cities to see a slow increase in cases is Boston, in addition to D.C., Detroit and Chicago, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The seven-day average of positive tests had been on a steady decline since the end of May, but on Aug. 2 the new average was 292 cases. The three-day average for COVID patients in Massachusetts hospitals rose to 384, which is a 6% increase since July 14, when numbers were at their lowest.

“I haven’t talked to Dr. Birx … we’ve talked to members of the [White House] task force quite a bit,” Baker said, and added that it’s likely their concern is about the Greater Boston area.

The reopening of Boston and overall decline in cases since April has “caused some residents to feel a bit too relaxed about the seriousness of the virus,” Baker said. On July 6, step one of phase 3 allowed several more industries to reopen and outdoor events were given a maximum of 100 people. Step two of that phase would have allowed indoor theater and concert venues to hold events and higher-contact indoor recreation.

“This uptick in cases and reports of people not adhering to the guidance we have put forth in Massachusetts mean we cannot move forward at this time,” the governor said.

In addition to postponing step two of this phase, the governor is focusing on high-risk communities to ensure that businesses and residents are aware of the regulations. Starting August 12, the Department of Public Health will report town-by-town COVID data and announce the high-risk communities.

The goal is to bring together local services, public health services and police in those areas to raise awareness and increase enforcement of the rules.

“This will be different in every town,” Baker said. “It will include things like helping a town access federal relief funds.”

Baker noted that several parties and group recreational activities have happened since Massachusetts reopened, and local police have had little authority to stop them. Most notably, the Colonial Hotel in Gardner was fined $600 for hosting a wedding with over 300 attendees. As the state monitors high-risk areas, more fines could be instituted.

There is already a $500 daily fine for travelers from high-risk states who don’t quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative COVID-19 test. While most states in the Northeast are not considered high-risk currently, Rhode Island has been added to the list due to its recent uptick in cases and COVID-related deaths. There are exceptions for commuters, military personnel and patients seeking medical treatment if they’re coming from high-risk areas.

Though concern is high, the governor expressed confidence in Boston’s numbers and in the Stop the Spread initiative that started pop-up testing sites in 17 locations across the state. That initiative will now be extended to Sept. 12.

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