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Baker says state officials monitoring colleges as students return, want to avoid superspreader events

Governor Charlie Baker.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday that state officials are talking regularly with local colleges as students return for the fall semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baker, speaking during his regular press briefing, also noted that so-called superspreader events like the now-infamous February Biogen conference in Boston illustrate how the disease can move from one person to another in a short period of time.

“Our biggest concern at this point is unmasked, undistanced, unmanaged events, and the reason we said that is our own contact tracing activity has shown that big elements of the rise in cases that we’ve seen in some of the communities that we would call high-risk has not been the result of people coming to a place like this,” Baker said during his regular briefing following a tour of WheelWorks bike shop in Belmont.

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“Because generally speaking, the people who work here are wearing masks and distancing, the customers aren’t allowed in the stores if they don’t wear a mask and distance,” Baker said.

He said Massachusetts officials expect about the half the number of college students who normally come to the state for the fall semester to return this autumn.

“Our primary focus right at this point is the colleges reopening, whether it’s remote or kids coming back to school, and with K-12 school reopening,” Baker said. “Those are big deals here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

He said the reduced number of college students returning to the state will “have certainly a significant impact on what the task at hand would actually look like compared to a traditional year, and I fully expect that sometimes daily conversations going on between us and those local communities around enforcement and around messaging and around rules of the road, guidance and advisories, and everything else, are going to continue to be pretty regular practice for all of us as we head into the month of September.”

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Baker at one point was asked about a forthcoming study from researchers who found that an international meeting of Biogen leaders at a Boston hotel in February led to roughly 20,000 cases of COVID-19 in four Massachusetts counties by early May.

The governor reminded reporters that he was criticized a few months ago for describing the Biogen event as a “seminal” moment for the virus in Massachusetts.

“I do think it speaks to the power of that virus to move from one person to another to another to another to another if people don’t wear a mask, don’t social distance, don’t take seriously the fact that the fundamental strength of COVID-19 is its ability to get from one person to the next, quickly,” Baker said.

He also pointed to recent weddings in Maine and Rhode Island that resulted in COVID clusters.

Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito also announced the launch of a new advertising campaign aimed at getting state residents to shop locally and encouraged constituents to take advantage of this weekend’s annual sales tax holiday in Massachusetts.

Just as residents have a role to play in stemming the spread of the virus, Polito said, “we also have a role to play in supporting our local businesses.”

The annual sales tax holiday allows shoppers to forgo paying the state sales tax on many retail items, according to the state’s official mass.gov website. It applies only to individuals buying items for personal use.

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Certain items do not qualify for the sales tax exemption, including meals, motor vehicles, motor boats, telecommunications services, gas, steam, electricity, tobacco products, marijuana or marijuana products, alcoholic beverages, and anything priced above $2,500, the site says.



Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JaclynReiss