Large parties, gatherings have Baker rethinking virus guidance
With upticks in positive COVID-19 testing rates linked to larger social events, Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday that his administration is reviewing the state's guidance on gathering sizes, but blamed the behavior of people choosing to party without precaution for the clusters of infections that have sprung up.
A large party in Chatham has been linked to a cluster of new infections there, while a number of lifeguards who attended a party in Falmouth walked away infected by COVID-19. And on Nantucket, officials are considering scaling back restaurant hours as infection numbers on the island have ticked up and people have been observed gathering on beaches close to one another without masks.
"I think that's one of the things we're talking about," Baker said at a press conference when asked about the state's gathering size limits. "But the bigger issue is not so much the nature of the size of some of these gatherings, especially the private ones that are going on in backyards and places like that. The bigger issue is honestly the behavior generally at those, which is not socially distant, no masks and in some respects a lack of respect for how this virus works and how it moves from person to person."
Baker's assesment of the situation echoed that of frustrated Cape Cod officials, who pointed Thursday to house parties and other private gatherings as a driver of new COVID-19 infections in the region. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo also told her constituents to tone down the summer partying as she took action to reduce permissable gathering sizes in the Ocean State.
"To all our residents I can't express this enough. Don't be careless or complacent," Baker said.
The state's guidance instructs people to limit indoor gatherings to 25 people, and a maximum of 100 people outdoors depending on the size of the venue. The state's positive test rate is at 2 percent currently, which is still low, but has been rising slightly over the past week or so.
Baker was at Pfizer's facilities in Andover where the pharmaceutical giant this week entered stage three efficacy trials for a vaccine for COVID-19 that is expected to involve up to 30,000 test patients. Pfizer is one of several Massachusetts companies chasing a vaccine, and company officials hope to be able to file for regulatory approvals for use by October.
The company said it expects to produce 100 million doses of the vaccine by the end of the year, and will have the capability to make 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021. Pfizer's is an mRNA vaccine that requires two doses per patient. Cambridge-based Moderna has also begun widespread testing of its vaccine on humans, and another vaccine candidate linked with Massachusetts, this one being pursued by Johnson & Johnson with researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has shown potential in a study with monkeys, and is entering an early-stage clinical trial in people.
"Until we have a treatment or a vaccine, and I know you're working on that one, we have to learn how to continue to live with this virus," Baker said, with Pfizer executives standing nearby.
Vaira Harik of the Barnstable County Department of Human Services said on a call with members of Cape Cod's reopening task force on Thursday that it was "irresponsible" to host or attend a group gathering without physical distancing and masks, whether the event is indoors or outdoors.
"If you can hear the frustration in our voices, you are not mishearing this," Harik said.
Thirteen people tested positive for COVID-19 in connection with a house party earlier this month in Chatham, said Shareen Davis, chairwoman of the local Select Board. The Cape Cod Times reported Monday that eight Falmouth lifeguards had also tested positive after attending a party.
Davis called it "reckless and dangerous" to ignore public health guidance and said officials wanted to impress upon young people "that their actions have impact" and they could spread the highly contagious virus to loved ones who may be at higher risk.
Sen. Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat, said holding parties where people don't wear masks or keep their distance is "profoundly disrespectful to Cape Codders who have been working very hard and done, broadly, a pretty good job to slow community spread."
"There's evidence that the community spread is limited, so we're talking about private events, which admittedly is frustrating, particularly given the fact that there is ample fresh air and sunlight and breezes on Cape Cod," Cyr said. "It's frustrating to see these private events occurring, particularly if they're occurring indoors. Private events at which physical distancing and mask-wearing are not occurring are the clear accelerant that is spreading the virus on Cape Cod."
Cyr said he can relate to the desire to socialize and suggested visiting with friends outdoors, in chairs spaced apart from one another.
In Rhode Island, Gov. Raimondo dropped the maximum gathering size from 25 to 15 after what officials there have described as a slight uptick in cases. In a Wednesday press conference, the governor said an analysis of more than 4,000 COVID-19 cases reported in Rhode Island made one thing "crystal clear."
"We're partying too much," she said.
Raimondo said her state has traced cases back to a house party with more than 50 people, birthday parties in backyards and restaurants, a baby shower, a sports banquet and large pool parties. The patterns are the same, she said — more than 25 people gathering in close contact for hours, with no masks or social distancing.
"If you're doing this, I need you to knock it off, because people are getting sick, people are dying, and it's unnecessary," Raimondo said. "Yes, it's summer, I know you want to have a good time — we all do — but I have friends now whose loved ones are on ventilators. Your right to have a party should not infringe on their right to live."
Stricter rules for anyone traveling from the majority of states outside New England to Massachusetts take effect on Saturday. People arriving from 42 states will need to either self-isolate for 14 days or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result within the previous 72 hours, or risk fines. The rules apply to those moving in to university campuses for the fall semester, and some colleges will have their own testing protocols in place.
Cyr said the ability to return to campus might incentivize college students to behave responsibly in the remaining weeks of their summer breaks.
"That fun summer night on Cape Cod may actually have some pretty significant consequences for you not being able to attend classes in person, being stuck at home with whoever your parents are for a long, cold academically remote winter," he said.
Baker said the uptick in cases on the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket — popular summer vacation destinations — were part of the reason he put more teeth behind the state's inbound travel restrictions.
The Massachusetts governor paused his dicussion of the coronavirus at Thursday's press conference to caution people not to plant mysterious seeds from packages that have been arriving unsolicited from foreign countries and may contain invasive species harmful to the environment.
"Locusts? What's next?" the governor muttered, almost to himself.
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