During his first press conference following the Thanksgiving weekend, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday that he has no plans to implement additional restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19.
But with more holidays on the horizon, Baker cautioned residents about in-person religious gatherings, which state officials have linked to hundreds of coronavirus cases.
“We know that it’s difficult to ask people to modify these time-honored traditions, but COVID has no intention of taking the holiday off and, in many respects, it’s many of those time-honored traditions that create some of the most significant issues with respect to spread,” he said.
Baker didn’t go so far as to urge Bay Staters against attending in-person religious services, acknowledging that “a lot” of residents attend Christmas Eve midnight services, as well as other places of worship during the holiday season. And he said the “majority of both parishioners and clergy have done a remarkable job” following the state’s safety guidelines for religious gatherings during the pandemic.
“But our data has still found that there were too many clusters of cases that stemmed from houses of worship,” Baker added. “And these cases spread out into the community at large.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, houses of worship have been the source of 36 coronavirus clusters, leading to 316 confirmed infections and 150 close contacts affecting 48 communities in Massachusetts, Baker said Tuesday.
According to the state’s most recent weekly COVID-19 report, places of worship were linked to six clusters and 44 confirmed cases between Oct. 25 and Nov. 21. While those figures pale in comparison to the number of cases linked to household spread, long-term care facilities, social gatherings, and even restaurants, Baker noted that they still have the potential to quickly set off chains of community spread. In October, a church in Fitchburg, which was warned for violating safety protocols, was linked to more than 200 cases.
“That’s obviously a big number, but what’s more concerning is that those 200 individuals went off into their own daily routines,” Baker said, adding that they likely exposed countless others and potentially created other clusters.
The governor praised the religious leaders who have moved services online or outdoors, given the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission indoors.
The state’s guidelines limit houses of worship to 50 percent occupancy for indoor services and require attendees who are not part of the same immediate household to be seated at least six feet apart. Both staff and attendees are also generally required to wear face coverings (though they can remove it while conducting the service or giving an address, if at least six feet away from others). Communal gatherings, such as coffee hours, before or after the service are prohibited.
Baker’s press conference Tuesday comes less than a week after the Supreme Court, citing First Amendment protections, struck down COVID-19 rules in New York that limited religious gatherings to 10 or 25 people (depending on the local community’s coronavirus levels).
However, the Baker administration has said they believe that their own restrictions on religious gatherings are “consistent” with the Supreme Court ruling. Unlike in New York, the state applies similar 40 to 50 percent occupancy limits on retail stores, gyms, museums, and other non-religious settings as it does on places of worship.
“New York had one set of standards for formal gatherings, generally, and then a different set of standards for religious institutions,” Baker said Tuesday. “Our rules, for the most part, around distance and around capacity are the same, whether you’re in a church or synagogue or temple, or another form of gathering space — a hotel or a meeting place. I think our view is that as long as you don’t treat houses of worship differently than you treat other organizations with respect to the rules associated with occupancy levels and distancing and face coverings and all the rest, we believe that’s consistent with that decision.”
Baker also reiterated Tuesday that his administration “is not planning any additional closures or restrictions” in general, even as others states, such as Rhode Island, impose new restrictions on gatherings and order businesses to close back down in an attempt to prevent their health care systems from being overwhelmed by the increase in cases this fall.
In fact, the governor suggested that the nighttime stay-at-home advisory, expanded mask mandate, and reduced gathering limits announced about a month ago contributed to “slower case growth” over the past 10 days.
“It didn’t happen by accident,” he said.
Massachusetts did report a net increase of 93 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 on Monday, the biggest single-day jump since April. The state currently has a total of 1,174 hospitalizations, which — as Baker has stressed — still isn’t close to the levels seen in the spring.
Massachusetts also reported 1,166 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases out of 29,195 tests on Monday, as experts caution that holiday season coronavirus data could get erratic. The average positive test rate ticked up to 3.9 percent.
While some local health care leaders have expressed concerns that gatherings and travel over the long Thanksgiving weekend could exacerbate an already concerning increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations both in Massachusetts and across the country, Baker said Tuesday that he was pleased to see air, train, and bus travel down significantly over the past week compared to the same time last year.
Even if airports in Boston and across the country saw a significant increase in passengers compared to normal pandemic-era levels, Baker said the data suggested that many people realized that “this year needed to be different.”
“We also heard from many of the folks who sell turkeys that the small birds went fast,” Baker said. “In many cases, they had big birds left over — another indicator that people did smaller gatherings than they have historically in response to COVID and to the messaging that came from so many of us.”
Baker urged residents to “dig a little deeper” headed into the December holidays, especially with the “light at the end of the tunnel” portended by recent vaccine developments.
“This isn’t hopefully a forever thing,” he said. “But when you’re in the midst of the kind of surge that we and so many other folks around the country are in, it’s important for people to keep their guard up in almost every social circumstance and situation.”