In spite of managing to contain the spread of the coronavirus for much of the summer, Massachusetts has recently seen an uptick in positive cases. On Sept. 23, the state recorded more new cases than any other day since May — a tally that has been surpassed twice since. But despite the recent and alarming trend, which has many experts concerned, Governor Charlie Baker has decided to ease social distancing rules — allowing restaurants to begin serving parties of 10 indoors, up from a maximum of six, and reopening some venues like trampoline parks and roller rinks. This could potentially lead to more outbreaks as flu season approaches and medical capacity is constrained. At the same time, Baker has urged reluctant school districts in low-risk areas to return to in-person learning. If the governor’s goal to get kids back to school in a safe environment is sincere, he should reconsider his priorities.
By now, the governor should know that when it comes to COVID-19 amid a failed federal response, the Commonwealth can’t have it both ways. Letting indoor businesses gather more people — known to increase risk of community spread — undermines schools’ ability to safely return to in-person instruction, because schools are not isolated bubbles. If their surrounding communities are engaging in risky behavior, that makes students and teachers more vulnerable to contracting the virus as well.
But Baker doesn’t seem to be bothered by these potential risks. He’s allowing indoor performance venues to reopen in most of the state next week, with up to 250 people at a show in lower-risk areas. Gyms, libraries, and museums will also be able to increase their capacities, all while the state sees a resurgence in positive cases. “It is absolutely too early to ease these restrictions, especially as we start to see cases increase again,” said Brooke Nichols, a professor and health economist at the Boston University School of Public Health. “This is valuing businesses over education. It’s just a decision that’s been made in this country over and over and over. And personally, I don’t think it’s the right choice.”
Baker should instead focus on containing unnecessary indoor gatherings so that schools can safely reopen in person and stay open (as he’s urged many districts to do). Anything else would make a successful return to the classroom even more of a fantasy than it already is. “We don’t want to increase community incidence because of dining and then make schools unsafe,” Nichols said.
The governor’s office emphasizes that the state will be easing restrictions in low-risk areas. “Our data shows that much of Massachusetts has seen little to no COVID cases over the past several weeks,” a spokesperson said in an e-mail. “Our reopening guidance reflects this and keeps tighter restrictions where they are needed and enables those with low cases to cautiously advance. Individual municipalities may impose even stricter restrictions.”
But low-risk areas — as defined by Massachusetts’ color-coded map — can quickly turn into high-risk ones if people are encouraged to socialize in groups indoors. “[These] zones are a false sense of security,” Nichols said. “Infectious diseases don’t care about borders at all.”
That’s why Baker’s plan hinges on a faulty premise: While he is leaving higher-risk areas out of his reopening plan — nearly two dozen cities including Boston are in “red zones” and will therefore not loosen restrictions under the state’s new guidelines — people living in those communities can simply travel to a low-risk zone in order to go to a concert or dine with a bigger party indoors. It’s difficult to see how limiting a reopening plan to “safer” areas, in a state where people can move freely, mitigates much risk, if any.
This is not to say that businesses should be ignored. Since the pandemic hit, businesses like restaurants and movie theaters have faced terrible financial blows. And in order to ensure that they are not forced to close permanently, the state should step in to help them get through this, but not by allowing them to gather large groups prematurely. If this wave is exacerbated and the state sees more and more cases each day, then everything, from restaurants to schools, will be forced to shut down all over again. That’s why Baker should play the long game in reviving the economy and continue efforts like aiding restaurants with grants — which he recently doubled the budget for — that could help them extend outdoor dining well into the fall, as opposed to serving more patrons indoors.
Ultimately, if schools are to stay open, Baker needs to show more leadership. He needs to make sure that the current trend in cases is reversed, and acknowledge that allowing more people to mingle indoors does not help in that regard, especially with flu season fast approaching.
In response to a question about Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic, Baker said, “I think the federal government overall on this, especially for state leaders and other health care providers playing this game on the ground, has made it harder for all of us.” If the governor does not change course, he may soon find out that he is also making it harder for himself — and the rest of us.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.