To combat a rise in COVID-19 cases that he says threatens to overwhelm the Massachusetts health care system by the end of the year, Gov. Charlie Baker announced a series of sweeping but “targeted” new orders Monday intended to slow the spread of the disease, including a business curfew and a revised face covering mandate for all public places.
“Once again, it’s time for the people of Massachusetts to step up for one another — to play by the rules and to fight the fight,” the governor said.
According to Baker, the state’s Department of Public Health will reinstate a stay-at-home advisory for 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., meaning that residents are instructed to stay home between those hours unless they’re running critical errands, such as to get groceries or address health needs, or taking a walk.
Baker also signed a corresponding executive order requiring virtually all entertainment-related businesses — including theaters, casinos, event venues, museums, salons and gyms — to close by 9:30 p.m. Alcohol and recreational marijuana sales are also ordered to stop at 9:30 p.m., though retailers that sell alcohol, like grocery stores, can remain open to sell other things.
According to the order, restaurants must also cease table service at 9:30 p.m., but takeout and delivery may continue for food and non-alcoholic beverages.
“We’re telling people to go home, and not … to go to their friend’s house or their neighbor’s house or somebody else — we’re telling them to go home,” Baker said Monday during a press conference at the State House, blaming inter-household social gatherings for “driving a significant, sustained increase” in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
The governor also issued a new face covering mandate for all indoor and outdoor public places — eliminating the exception for when people can maintain six feet of distance from others.
Similar to the strict orders imposed by some Massachusetts cites this past spring, the updated mandate requires everyone over the age of 5 to wear a face covering whenever in public, including on streets and sidewalks, as well as when in a car with members of another household. Violators can be fined $300. There are still exceptions for people with medical or disabling conditions, as well as instances where state rules specifically allow individuals to take off their mask, such as when they’re dining at a restaurant or are at the dentist.
Baker also updated the state’s gathering limits to reduce the maximum number of people allowed at indoor gatherings at private residences from 25 to 10. He also reduced the outdoor gathering limit for private residences from 50 to 25 people. Violators may be subject to civil fines of $500 per person that exceeds the gathering limit.
The limit on gatherings at event venues and other public spaces remains the same: for indoor events, the maximum is 25 across the state; for outdoor events, the limit is 100 in communities designated as “lower-risk” and 50 for communities designated as “high risk.”
Still, under the new order, those gatherings must end and disperse by 9:30 p.m.
While he conceded that some residents may chose not to follow the newly tightened rules, Baker said the orders give law enforcement and landlords more ability to break up informal gatherings and house parties, which he has largely blamed for the rise in cases.
“Do I expect everybody to follow these rules? No,” Baker said. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned since the beginning of this, it’s the vast majority of people in Massachusetts are rule followers and if you give them rules and guidance, they will do it.”
The new orders — which take effect Friday — come after Massachusetts reported its 10th straight day with more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases, as the number of new infections across the country have surged to record levels in recent days.
It also comes after a Halloween weekend during which Baker said there were “hundreds and hundreds of pictures of parties that went on way into the night, where no one was social distancing, where people were piled all over and on top of each other.”
“It looked really fun,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. But I can’t think of a worse way to battle and fight the rise in COVID cases than that.”
Since Labor Day, the number of new infections reported per day in Massachusetts is up 278 percent, according to DPH data. But more concerning than the rise in cases is the rise in hospitalizations, which is up 143 percent over that same time period.
“If we do nothing and stay on the track we’re on now, we’ll create capacity problems for our healthcare system by the end of the calendar year,” Baker said.
“Imagine what that would be like for your friends and neighbors who work in health care, if cases and hospitalizations continue to rise at double digit rates straight into and through the holiday season: double shifts, no time for families, the same urgency and demands on their time that we placed on them last spring,” the governor added.
While he stressed that Massachusetts is more prepared to handle the rise in cases than it was at the onset of the pandemic, Baker said that health care workers still deserve our “best efforts to avoid recreating the high case and hospital accounts that we all lived through last spring.
“They’re worried about the trends they see,” he said.
The orders Monday come after data released last week suggested that households accounted for the vast majority of coronavirus clusters in Massachusetts since the beginning of fall (though the majority of nearly 20,000 new cases during the four-week period were not tied to a specific cluster). Baker said Monday that residents should postpone or rethink any indoor get-togethers like big birthday parties, baby showers or even watching football or some other sporting event with neighbors.
“These are places where COVID spreads on regulated gatherings even if they’re small, where people let down their guard,” he said.
At the same time, Baker rejected the idea of forcing businesses or particularly schools to close in order to handle the trend. Compared to households, those settings have been tied to a fraction of the identified clusters, according to state data.
“Schools are not spreaders here, or anywhere else,” said the governor, who has pressed local districts to continue in-person classes.
“The simple truth is this: Too many of us have become complacent in our daily lives,” Baker said. “I know it’s hard for people to hear me say this time and time again, but it’s true.We’re doing much better than many other states and many other countries, but here too we’ve let down our guard, and we have work to do. “