Baker: No more virus restrictions planned

  • Hundreds of motorists line up at the Whale's Tooth parking lot in New Bedford, Mass., to be tested for COVID-19. (Peter Pereira/The Standard-Times via AP) PETER PEREIRA

State House News Service
Published: 12/1/2020 8:05:45 PM

With a second surge of COVID-19 transmission still underway as the holiday season begins, Gov. Charlie Baker brushed away “rumor-mongering” that the state will soon tighten restrictions but flagged clusters in houses of worship as a growing concern.

The administration is not planning any additional closures or changes to the pandemic regulations in place, though officials continue to monitor public health data, Baker said at a Tuesday press conference.

That stands as a contrast to steps underway in other states where the outlook has been worsening. Rhode Island started a two-week pause Monday that closed all gyms, bars and other recreational activities and banned all social gatherings, while New York also plans to ramp up steps such as halting elective surgeries in some areas.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation going around about things that are going to get shut down here, there, everywhere, at a moment’s notice. People have enough stress in their lives without having to deal with the rumor-mongering,” Baker said.

“At this time, the commonwealth is not planning any additional closures or restrictions. We’ll continue to follow closely the public health data and continue to make decisions based on that,” he said. “The public will be given, as they have been in almost every instance and circumstance since the beginning of this, clear notice before anything new goes into effect.”

Confirmed new cases around the country have risen to unprecedented levels in recent weeks. In Massachusetts, the spread has been significant over the past two months, with the average number of daily confirmed cases nearly 1,000 percent higher than the lowest values observed this summer.

The weighted average positive test rate sat at 3.9 percent on Monday, which is both the highest level since June and also well below the 20-plus percent rates in April. Statewide, about two-thirds of non-ICU hospital beds are full, with less capacity remaining in Boston and the northeastern parts of the state.

Like many elected officials and public health experts, Baker spent the weeks ahead of Thanksgiving urging residents to share the day only with those in their households to avoid transmission risks.

He said Tuesday he was “pleased” to see lower travel volumes — about 40 percent of last year’s passengers went through TSA checkpoints, while bus and train travel over the weekend was only 20 percent of the previous year — but attention now turns to the string of religious holidays in December.

Those who choose to see family or friends should prioritize safety, Baker said, by wearing masks, maintaining distance, avoiding shared food or drink, and taking other health precautions that have become all too familiar.

“The idea here is to keep everybody healthy and to keep our schools and our economy going forward,” Baker said.

“It’s certainly fair to say that with all the work that’s been going on around vaccines and other issues, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but that’s all the more reason at this point in time, as we head into the holidays, to dig a little deeper and continue to make the difficult choices that the vaccine and the times require.”

While Baker stressed that he is not asking anyone to avoid churches, temples and other places of worship, he flagged their role in driving new infections as reason to alter end-of-year practices and behaviors.

An analysis by a team of epidemiologists the Department of Public Health tapped found that houses of worship in Massachusetts have been the source of dozens of COVID-19 clusters, spinning out into hundreds of confirmed cases.

Since the start of the pandemic, houses of worship have been home to 36 distinct clusters that are tied to 316 infections. Six of those clusters and 44 confirmed cases occurred in the past month alone.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that New York state’s COVID-era restrictions on religious services were unconstitutional. Baker said Tuesday that he believes Massachusetts should be immune from fallout in that case because, unlike New York, the state does not have different sets of standards for religious and non-religious gatherings.

“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,” he said.

Clusters are also on the rise in nursing homes, officials said, and at least one lawmaker, Rep. Mindy Domb, wants the Baker administration to turn its attention toward schools.

Domb, an Amherst Democrat, called Monday night for the DPH to investigate clusters identified so far in K-12 settings to help inform a response, arguing that getting a better understanding “is obviou

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said DPH has identified 63 incidents of two or more individuals with COVID-19 in a school setting, including 112 students.

“If I use a base of 450,000, which I think is probably pretty conservative, that’s 0.02 percent of kids or anyone related to a school that’s related to a cluster,” Sudders said.

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