As people throughout the region flocked to beaches, parks, and other outdoor areas over the hot weekend, a health expert said the state’s warnings about the coronavirus may not be doing enough to convince the public about the grave risks it poses.
Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, said more people must understand the danger and the importance of wearing masks and practicing social distancing in public. It’s particularly critical advice as officials hope to reopen K-12 schools and some college students return to the region in the fall, he said.
Many summer gatherings have been marked by a lack of masks and social distancing in crowds of largely young people — practices critical to stopping the pandemic.
“We need to stress that this is deadlier than influenza for everyone [and] that individuals who don’t die are often faced with a very long and painful or frustrating recovery process,” Scarpino said. “It’s not just about mortality, it’s about quality of life going forward.”
Over the weekend, there were scenes of largely young people crowding beaches in South Boston and standing shoulder-to-shoulder Saturday night on a Boston Harbor cruise. Many were not wearing masks or social distancing.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, in a statement Sunday, warned that people must follow those rules to help protect public health.
“We know all too well the serious health consequences of the coronavirus, and it is very concerning to see crowds of people gathering in large groups, putting themselves, everyone around them, and every person they come into contact with at risk,” Walsh said. “It is incumbent upon every person and every business to take this seriously, and follow the public health guidance that has been issued for everyone’s safety.”
Nineteen more people have died due to the coronavirus, the state reported Sunday, as the number of confirmed deaths increased to 8,310. Confirmed cases of the disease grew by 273, and reached a total of 108,380.
The calls for people to follow health guidance comes as the state is asking local school districts to develop plans that include reopening their buildings in the fall.
Those reopening efforts were buttressed by Vice President Mike Pence, who committed federal support to help Massachusetts reopen its K-12 schools during a Saturday visit with Governor Charlie Baker on Nantucket.
Pence told reporters following the meeting that the Trump administration believes it’s best for children to be back in the classroom. Aside from academics, children receive other services at school, including counseling and special education, Pence said.
The state’s school officials are still working to determine whether to reopen, hold virtual classes, or a provide a hybrid of both.
Scarpino said he agrees that a top priority for the state should be to reopen schools. But to do so safely, the state needs to expand its testing capacity and get results from those tests in less than 24 hours. It also must continue to keep numbers of new cases low, particularly as some K-12 schools reopen and college students return.
“But I’m skeptical we’ll be able to do that if we have a situation that’s even a little bit worse than what it is right now,” Scarpino said. “And that means that everything that we do in the coming weeks, month or so, is going to dictate a lot of how successful we’re going to be with schools in the fall.”
Another challenge facing officials working to enlist public cooperation against the coronavirus has been the heat, which draws people to beaches and makes it difficult for them to keep masks on.
After Boston reached a high of 91 Sunday, more heat is expected Monday and Tuesday, when forecasters predict the city will hit a high in the mid-90s, said Bill Simpson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. High temperatures and humidity will also help drive the heat index to about 102 Monday, he said.
The weather service has issued an excessive heat advisory for Greater Boston from noon Monday through 8 p.m. Tuesday, when highs are also expected in the mid-90s, which would officially mark the start of a heat wave for the city, he said.
In Boston, where Walsh declared a heat emergency Sunday through Tuesday, he opened 21 community facilities across the city to serve as cooling centers and two public pools, with advanced booking required. All three sessions for the pools were booked Sunday.
The M Street Beach was busy Sunday, like it has been in recent weeks, with groups of people dotting the sand — the vast majority not wearing masks.
Nearby on Carson Beach, Janderson Gomes, 32, of Allston sat on a bench overlooking the shoreline and enjoying the ocean breeze with a friend, neither wearing a mask.
Gomes, who works for a moving company and as a kitchen manager, said he wanted a chance to relax. Sitting at home feels “tight,” he said and confining. Being at the beach reminded him of Brazil, where he grew up.
“Just hang, watch everybody. The bad stuff, you let it go,” Gomes said. “You cannot be safe 100 percent. There’s no way.”
Brendan Lanoue, 32, of Medford and a friend said they wore their masks while walking to their spot on the sand at Carson Beach, and they took off the coverings once they settled in away from other people.
He compared it to dining outside at a restaurant: As long as nobody at the beach was getting too close, he felt safer. And during the four hours he spent at the beach Sunday, he said people were respectful and minded their personal space.
“It was good,” he said. “The wind feels good, too.”
Away from the beach, another sign of people disregarding precautions was evident Saturday evening when crowds of people were spotted standing shoulder-to-shoulder without masks on a Boston Harbor cruise ship.
Marty Walz, a former state representative who watched from Pier 4 as the ship set out around 7:15 p.m., posted a photograph of the tightly packed ship to Twitter.
How is this crowded party boat in Boston Harbor allowed? pic.twitter.com/HfGILXWLrE— Marty Walz (@MartyWalzAssoc) July 26, 2020
She said many of the people were not wearing masks as they gathered to board and called the ship’s operator, Bay State Cruise Company, irresponsible for not requiring passengers to take precautions.
“I was shocked and scared that we’re going to have another serious outbreak of COVID, and things will get as bad as they were in March and April,” said Walz, a South Boston resident, in a phone interview Sunday. “I couldn’t help wondering why so many people were willing to be so reckless.”
The city’s Inspectional Services Department and the Boston Public Health Commission’s Environmental Division have been in touch with the company and will visit the site Monday, according to city officials.
A WCVB-TV news crew on Saturday night filmed passengers as they disembarked the ship, though people gave conflicting accounts about adhering to masks and social distancing during the trip.
One woman told the news station “no one was wearing a mask” on board, while a man said he wore a mask for the entire trip.
Julie Pagano, with Bay State Cruise Company, which operates the Provincetown II, told the Globe in an e-mail Sunday that the ship was out on a 7 to 9:30 p.m. cruise Saturday and precautions were observed.
The ship provides enough room for 6 feet of space per passenger for up to 44 percentof the vessel’s capacity, she said.
On Saturday evening, the ship sailed at 33 percent of its capacity, she said.
“The general info is that in addition to providing ample space for social distancing, we are an outdoor venue with the benefit of a constant breeze across the decks as we sail at nine knots,” Pagano said.
Scarpino, the epidemiologist, said researchers are still working about how transmission works for this virus. He said officials should take action to prevent such scenes in the future.
“Certainly seeing packed party barges is not the kind of scene we would like to witness going into the fall,” Scarpino said.
Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member. Lucas Phillips can be reached at email@example.com. John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.