BOSTON -- Gov. Charlie Baker is rolling back reopening plans amid a surge in coronavirus cases that some fear could overwhelm the state’s health care system.
Beginning Sunday, every community will return to Phase 3, Step 1 of the state’s reopening timeline. The change will require some businesses to close and others to reduce capacity. The state is also lowering the limit on public gatherings from 100 to 50 people.
Baker said the new restrictions aim to prevent spread of the virus by improving compliance with social distancing and mask-wearing requirements and restricting people’s movement.
He said the current track of infections and hospitalizations is “unsustainable,” and it threatens to overwhelm the state’s hospitals.
“The days of most people doing most of the right things are probably not enough,” Baker said at a briefing Tuesday. “Significantly more people are suffering from severe COVID-related illnesses, and this sharp increase is putting a strain on our healthcare system and our frontline health care workers.”
Among the new rules, some entertainment venues will be closed, and capacity for most businesses will be reduced to 40%. Restaurants will be required to reduce table sizes from 10 to six people per party and set a 90-minute limit on dining.
Schools will remain open unless they are located in “high risk” communities that have already shifted to remote learning, Baker said.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito called the rolled back restrictions a “targeted” effort to reduce infection levels “so we can keep our businesses open and our economy running.”
The Baker administration has been under pressure to do more to control spread of the virus as infections and hospitalizations soar.
Over the weekend, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and a Massachusetts resident, criticized Baker’s reluctance to impose tougher restrictions amid the surge.
He pointed out that Massachusetts has more new COVID-19 cases per capita that Florida, Texas or Georgia.
“I’ve gone from uncomfortable to aghast at the lack of action. It’s incomprehensible,” Jha posted on social media. “They must see different data because (there is) no rational explanation for lack of action.”
A group representing the state’s hospitals and healthcare groups praised Baker’s decision to tighten restrictions.
“We are again seeing the direct and powerful effect that community transmission of COVID-19 has on the strength of our healthcare system, and we have arrived at a point where these stronger limitations on indoor gatherings are essential for preventing our hospitals from being overwhelmed,” Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said in a statement.
Last week, the state reported 97 communities were at “high-risk” for COVID-19 transmission — including Lawrence, Methuen, and Peabody — an increase of 16 from the previous week.
Seventeen communities, including Peabody, were already back to Phase 3, Step 1 of reopening because of high infection rates.
Baker said the number of virus cases “took off like a rocket” roughly a week after people gathered for the Thanksgiving holiday, despite public health warnings.
More than 10,000 new confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported in the state over the weekend, as well as 89 additional deaths.
More than 1,500 people are hospitalized with the virus.
Earlier this week, the Baker administration reopened a field hospital at Worcester’s DCU Center, which will be used to ease pressure on the state’s hospitals from the surge of patients.
The state has also temporarily curtailed some elective surgeries at hospitals to free up beds and ease the strain on emergency rooms and COVID-19 wards.
A statewide “stay at home” advisory remains in effect, along with a mask mandate and curfews for most businesses Baker imposed last month.
Baker said with vaccines on the horizon there is “hope,” but he said a surge in infections means the state is in for a difficult few months ahead.
“We cannot simply wait for the vaccine to get here,” he said. “Once again, our health care workers and our healthcare system are being put at risk.”
For more information: http://mass.gov/covid-fgqw
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.