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Somerville is delaying its reopening. Will it make a difference?

The closed Boston Sports Clubs in Davis Square in Somerville. Somerville officials announced that the city will not enter Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan until at least August 3.
The closed Boston Sports Clubs in Davis Square in Somerville. Somerville officials announced that the city will not enter Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan until at least August 3.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

In 1666, the little English village of Eyam found itself ravaged by the bubonic plague. In the face of a mounting death toll, the villagers famously sealed their borders with a ring of stones: For months, merchants didn’t enter and villagers didn’t leave. Some historians credit that act of isolation with preventing the spread of the plague to surrounding villages, saving countless lives.

Unfortunately, the city of Somerville does not have such a ring. Still, Mayor Joseph Curtatone is trying his best to keep the plague at bay.

The mayor announced on Friday that the city would be further delaying its implementation of Phase 3 — the reopening of gyms, museums, and movie theaters — until at least Aug. 3. He cited a range of concerns, including a slight rise in the seven-day average of new cases over the past two weeks in some counties in Massachusetts, including nearby Suffolk, as well as the downsizing of the state’s contact tracing efforts.

With the announcement, Somerville claimed its place at the leading edge of resistance to Governor Charlie Baker’s four-phased reopening plan. The mayor has argued in particular that schools should be the centerpiece of a reopening plan, not indoor gyms or entertainment complexes.

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“Is our ultimate goal to open a casino here?” he said in an interview on Friday, referring to the fact that casinos were recently allowed to reopen. “Where does that stand in the pecking order?”

With the rest of the state moving confidently forward in reopening, Somerville’s move to stay shut raises questions about how much difference it makes for a locality to go its own way, especially when it is surrounded by other densely packed communities. Most of the state reopened on July 6; Boston did the same one week later.

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It is, of course, not the first time the lefty city has staked its own path — just a few weeks ago, it passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance recognizing polyamorous relationships in domestic partnerships. But the stakes are particularly high, both economically and health-wise, with the coronavirus.

“Individual neighborhoods making smart decisions are going to have an impact on transmission,” said Caroline Buckee, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But, she added, “it really depends on the extent to which people in Somerville are interacting more broadly with the rest of the community.”

Buckee has examined real-time mobility data from the Boston-Cambridge-Somerville area, which suggests a general uptick in movement as restrictions decrease. That data could prove useful in determining whether Somerville residents stick close to home, increasing the effect of the continued lockdown there, or travel more widely.

Curtatone acknowledged the challenges to his strategy.

“I’m not fooling myself to believe that we can hold it off on our own,” he said. “I, as just one leader, am hoping to do what’s right.”

Somerville was the first city in the state to provide free testing to all residents, regardless of symptoms.
Somerville was the first city in the state to provide free testing to all residents, regardless of symptoms.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Somerville has taken a cautious approach throughout the pandemic, enacting a mask mandate at the end of April and becoming the first city in the state to provide free testing to all residents, regardless of symptoms. Some of those efforts appear to have paid off. Data from the first two weeks of July show the city had one of the highest testing rates in the state, with less than 1 percent of those tests coming back positive. But Somerville also saw 16 new cases in the past week, after days of almost no increases.

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“Maybe it’s some sort of anomaly,” Curtatone said in a press conference on Friday. “But we know from the very brief history of this pandemic small numbers can flash into big ones on a dime.”

This week, Somerville had 1,277 cases per 100,000 people, a far lower rate of infection than nearby Everett (3,708 per 100,000) and Chelsea (7,903 per 100,000) and somewhat lower than Medford (1,721 per 100,000).

Some public health experts said a delay now makes sense, both because of the length of time it takes for city and state data to reflect changes in people’s behavior, and because of warning signs from other states that are now having to roll back openings.

“It takes 10 days to two weeks before you really start to see the effects of a change in any kind of regulation or restrictions,” said Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern. “To me, I would see a prudent course of action being in line with what Somerville has decided to do.”

Asked about Somerville’s decision to delay Phase 3, Baker on Friday reiterated his mantra that cities and towns can craft their own safety protocols as long as they don’t “negate” the state guidance. The governor said the notion that “folks on the ground locally in many cases have a very important sense and appreciation for what’s going on in their communities is a critical element to how we think about this whole exercise.”

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Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone spoke in April after he joined Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito to tour the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System setup to decontaminate N95 masks at Assembly Row Somerville.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone spoke in April after he joined Governor Charlie Baker and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito to tour the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System setup to decontaminate N95 masks at Assembly Row Somerville.Nicolaus Czarnecki/BH

And across the state, the metrics guiding the reopening have mostly offered good news, with the positivity rate hitting a low of 1.6 percent on July 14, the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. Doron believes those metrics suggest that the state is proceeding safely.

The purpose of the lockdown, Doron said, was not to contain the virus completely but instead to ensure that the hospitals were not overwhelmed.

“As long as we can maintain a level of infection that doesn’t overwhelm the hospitals, then we’re in the right zone,” she said. “We really, really achieved our goal. We’ve off-loaded the hospitals.”

If Somerville residents work out at gyms in Cambridge or ride public transit into downtown Boston, the effect of a longer lockdown would be weakened, public health experts said. Still, a longer delay would likely provide at least some protection for residents.

The Somerville Theatre in Davis Square remained closed in Somerville.
The Somerville Theatre in Davis Square remained closed in Somerville.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

“You’re not going to have an impact on COVID overall, but you may have an impact on COVID in your town,” said George Annas, director of the Center for Health Law, Ethics and Human Rights at Boston University’s School of Public Health.

But, Annas added, “It’s not going to cure the plague, and it’s not going to keep it out of your town. Those things are too late.”

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Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.