Facing a worrying uptick in Massachusetts COVID-19 cases, Governor Charlie Baker on Friday paused the state’s reopening and announced a series of steps intended to curb the virus’s spread including a tighter restriction on public gatherings.
The new Massachusetts measures create a new group to help enforce public health directives in harder-hit communities, reduce the limit on outdoor gatherings from 100 to 50 people, and require face coverings in instances where more than 10 people from different households are mixing.
His normally even tone sometimes carrying notes of frustration, Baker underscored that the actions of a few risked undoing the progress made against the virus in recent months.
“This fight against COVID-19 is far from over,” Baker said during a State House briefing.
The governor said restaurant rules have been updated so that it is clear that bars that serve alcohol only — and, say, chips but no food prepared there — will not be allowed to operate.
“Bars are closed in Massachusetts and bars masquerading as restaurants also need to be closed,” said Baker.
He authorized local and State Police to enforce such orders and said those who violate the restrictions will face fines.
The death toll from confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Massachusetts rose by 18 to 8,488, state officials reported Friday, and the number of cases climbed by 320, bringing the total to 111,853. Officials have said they are concerned about recent increases in the seven-day weighted average of positive test rates.
Some modelers have warned of new hot spots across the country, saying that transmissions are increasing in 11 states, which “may experience increasing cases for several weeks.“ However, Massachusetts is not among that group.
Some public health experts praised Baker’s moves.
Stephen Kissler, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said there has been an uptick in key coronavirus metrics in recent weeks, and welcomed state authorities acting before the numbers got worse.
“One thing that this epidemic seems to have taught us is that responding early is one of the most responsible things we could do,” he said.
Baker said the “notable decline” in the pandemic here from its springtime peak “has caused some residents to feel a bit too relaxed about the seriousness of this virus.”
He admonished hosts of large gatherings where people do not practice social distancing or wear masks, pointing out that many people who test positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic for days before they get sick or they may never get sick.
He referenced reports of illegal sports camps and private boat charters that led to clusters of new coronavirus cases, as well as large gatherings hosted by a hotel in the city of Gardner over the past weekend. And he noted recent big parties in places like Falmouth, Chatham, Winthrop, Wrentham, and Cohasset. He talked about how such parties spread the virus.
“Forty or 50 people in somebody’s backyard,” he said. ”Moms and dads. The kids. All the rest. Nobody wearing a face mask. Nobody socially distancing. One or two people there who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Hugs. Handshakes. High fives. Dancing. Who knows, right?”
He continued, “A whole bunch of people walk away from there little, ticking clocks that are going to go off at some point. And they go back home. And they pass it along to a few people in their family. And then we’re off!”
Baker said the new limit on outdoor gatherings would now apply on both public and private property. The limit on indoor gatherings will remain at 25.
Baker said he is creating a COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team to ramp up enforcement in high-risk communities and to coordinate local intervention efforts.
In hard-hit communities, he said, “Our goal is to help parents, families, individuals, and others make the smart decisions that they need to make with respect to their daily activities.”
The Baker administration said in a statement that the multi-agency COVID enforcement team will have a mandate that includes targeted interventions and inspections; increased enforcement, including fines; and supporting state alcohol regulators and local licensing boards in asserting their authority to fine restaurants or suspend or cancel liquor licenses when restaurants break the rules.
“One of the things we’re trying to do here is to give local communities, local law enforcement, and the State Police the ability to actually issue a fine,” Baker said.
The governor also said the state was postponing indefinitely Step 2 of the current Phase 3 of its reopening plan.
Step 2 would have allowed many of the venues that were allowed to open in Step 1 — but had to operate outside — to welcome patrons indoors, including playhouses and music venues. Additionally, indoor recreational activities with “greater potential for contact,” such as laser tag or roller skating, were set to reopen.
Helen Jenkins, assistant professor of biostatistics at Boston University’s School of Public Health, welcomed the newly announced restrictions, but also said she was slightly disappointed Baker elected not to rollback to a previous step or phase of the state’s reopening plan.
"I completely understand keeping the economy going but if transmission continues to go up that's not going to help the economy, either," she said.
Both Kissler and Jenkins were pleased the state is offering local communities more help in mitigating and managing the virus.
”It’s a very constructive way to handle the pandemic,” said Jenkins.
Dr. David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said “things are moving in the wrong direction” for many reasons, although he thought much of the trend could be attributed to non-compliance of public health recommendations.
“He’s taking new steps to turn that back around,” said Rosman of Baker.
Baker’s moves comes as other states contemplate how best to deal with higher infection rates in the midst of concerns of a second coronavirus wave.
On Thursday, Hawaii Governor David Ige announced restrictions to curb the spread of the virus there, including a reinstatement of a 14-day quarantine for inter-island travelers.
California, meanwhile, surpassed 10,000 deaths from the coronavirus on Friday, making it the US state with the third-highest deaths since the start of the pandemic. The current infection rates in the state, however, are unclear because California’s system is beset by technology problems, delaying the reporting of test results.
In New York, it was a different story. There, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Friday that schools across the state can reopen for in-person instruction this fall.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo said earlier this week her state is at a “turning point” as coronavirus cases edge up, warning that the state will ramp up enforcement of social gathering restrictions and ordering restaurants to close their bar areas by 11 p.m.
Travis Andersen of Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press and The New York Times was used in this report.