Health officials urge caution as limits ease

  • Customers at Fitzwilly€™’s Restaurant enjoy lunch Saturday under COVID-19 restrictions in Northampton. As of Monday, restaurant capacity restrictions were increased from 25% to 40%. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

Staff Writer
Published: 2/8/2021 8:18:50 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After a spike in cases of COVID-19 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Hadley announced restaurants, gyms, and other businesses would have to limit their capacity to 25% instead of raising it to 40%, as Gov. Charlie Baker recently allowed statewide.

Other cities and towns in the area are allowing the increase while still encouraging people to remain cautious.

Since the end of December, restaurants, gyms, and other businesses have been able to operate at up to 25% of their maximum capacity. Baker announced Thursday that because of a drop in COVID-19 infections, capacity could increase to 40% starting Monday.

Cases are trending downward, Northampton Director of Public Health Merridith O’Leary acknowledged.

“What I’m afraid lifting this ban or increasing the capacity could do is give people the sense of security that things are getting better to the point where we can go out more and be in larger crowds,” O’Leary said.

“We really don’t want be putting our guard down,” she said. “I feel like it’s a little premature on Governor Baker, but he’s balancing economics and public health where I just have a public health perspective.”

O’Leary added, “We’re seeing a lot of our cases in the restaurants are actually employees of the restaurants — especially the back-of-the-house employees. A lot of the food preparation areas are really small. It’s hard to keep your 6 feet. I’m not seeing a lot of transmission happening from customers to employees and vice versa.”

But, she added, those cases are harder to track.

“We’re not identifying it but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” she said. “You’d need a slew of epidemiologists on your payroll to figure (it) out.”

From Jan. 3-30, there were 19,619 new household clusters related to 50,250 cases out of a total 20,084 new clusters connected to 52,628 cases statewide, according to the state Department of Public Health.

The setting with the second-highest number of clusters was child care facilities with 142 new clusters. In the same time period, there were 18 new clusters at restaurant connected to 75 new cases.

But household transmission is easier to pin down, said Kathleen Szegda, an epidemiologist, director of Community Research and Evaluation and the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, and assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School-Baystate.

“It’s easier to identify that way. It’s harder to identify once it’s out in the community … unless it’s a discreet entity like a long-term-care facility.”

If O’Leary’s department starts to see more clusters coming from businesses, then she may limit capacity or hours. “Whatever I have to do to make sure we’re keeping people safe and our numbers down,” she said.

Bri Eichstaedt, Easthampton’s health agent, doesn’t have plans to set capacity lower than the governor’s order.

“It’s not really on my radar right now,” she said. Some restaurants in Easthampton have small dining rooms, so increasing capacity by 15% doesn’t add a lot of people.

“I guess I’m not that concerned,” she said.

Like in Northampton, “I haven’t seen a ton of cases related to restaurants. If anything, I’ve seen more workplace exposures,” she said. “We have definitely had our share of workplace clusters. And a cluster is two or more cases in a workplace related to each other. That’s a big strain on contact tracers. That why we’re really asking businesses and people in town to follow the guidelines.” She added, “A lot of times it’s preventative … Don’t come to work if you’re not feeling well.”

Szegda, the epidemiologist, said it’s hard to say if it’s safe to raise capacity now.

“Safe is all relative right now. Very little is absolutely safe,” she said. “I do think it’s important that we continue to watch and see.”

The Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts has been tracking COVID rates in the area and compiling data. She added, “I think we do have to watch because of concerns about the variants.”

The B117 strain of COVID-19, which is more contagious, could be the main strain of the virus in the U.S. by March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.

Szegda said the UK has been leading in genetic testing of the virus, which is required to know if it is the B117 strain. “In the U.S.,” she said, “we haven’t been doing that as much.”

O’Leary said that the state Department of Public Health is randomly selecting specimens to test for the new variant. As of Monday, she said, no cases were detected in Northampton.

Greta Jochem can be reached at

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