With Boston’s coronavirus rate on the rise, Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Thursday said authorities might start issuing fines to limit house parties and also possibly close parks to curb unsafe gatherings, in what would mark a substantial change in the city’s efforts to control the crisis.
“We are going to be cracking down,” said Walsh during a City Hall news conference.
Walsh, who acted decisively in canceling large-scale events and implementing COVID-19 mitigation measures in the early stages of the pandemic, said the rate of positive tests citywide for the week ending Oct. 10 was 4.4 percent, up from 4.1 percent the previous week. Over the summer, during a 12-to-16-week period, the rate hovered between 1.8 percent and 2.8 percent.
What would increased enforcement of house parties look like? Walsh said city officials are working on “probably . . . some type of fine that we’re going to be imposing. We’re looking at now, do we have to give notification, how we’re going to do it."
The city, he said, is left with no choice but to consider fines and other penalties.
“We’re at the next step now,” Walsh said. “I’ve been standing at this podium for the last two months. Everyone’s been asking me, you know, ‘Are you going to start enforcing these rules?’ ”
His comments came a day after Councilor Ed Flynn said police responded to more than 200 calls for loud parties in September just in the district covering South Boston.
Until now, Walsh has largely avoided punitive action to enforce the restrictions. There have been no citations for those who do not wear masks. When Walsh asked residents to stay indoors between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., the curfew was a request, with no fines for lack of compliance. When he instituted a construction suspension, it carried no fines for those who did not comply, although city authorities did stop work at scores of sites that were flouting the rules.
Walsh has instead opted for a simple appeal, repeatedly asking the public to follow guidelines because it is the right thing to do. He returned to that plea on Thursday, urging people to call 911 if they witness a concerning house party. Not attending a party, Walsh said, “is a small sacrifice.”
The mayor said city officials are considering a system that would potentially fine both landlords and tenants for house parties. Landlords, he said, “have to take responsibility for their tenants.”
Details such as the amounts of the prospective fines for parties were not disclosed. It was also not clear under what city law or rule the fines would be issued. Walsh said city authorities have not discussed fining people for not wearing masks in the city.
Regarding people gathering in parks, Walsh said, “we’re asking people to be smart about it, but if we have to shut parks down, we will.”
The state’s limit for indoor gatherings is 25, and Walsh said there was no plan for the city to implement a more stringent limit.
The mayor acknowledged that police have the authority to break up loud parties, but is it legal to fine someone just for throwing a party? That is an open question, according to Harvey Silverglate, a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney based in Cambridge.
All pandemic-related restrictions on everyday life raise civil liberties issues, said Silverglate, and the legality of house party fines is going to depend on “the highest court that adjudicates the question.”
“I don’t think anyone can honestly tell you how a court would [decide] if it was asked to review any of these restrictions,” he said.
“This is something new, this is a once-in-a-century pandemic," he added. "We don’t have a lot of current case law and precedent we can go by.”
The First Amendment provides freedom of association, and someone may assume that if they want to gather with friends, they do not have to ask the state to do so, said Silverglate, but in a public health emergency, an individual may have to do just that.
“A lot depends on the current atmosphere,” he said. “If the virus is resurgent, as we know it is, that gives the state and city more of an edge.”
Walsh said he understood the need to socialize "but right now we need to focus on activities” that aren’t high-risk for spreading the virus.
“If you are thinking about going to a house party, just don’t think about the people at the party,” said the mayor.
Rather, Walsh said, residents should be mindful of all the people a party guest may later pass the virus to.
The mayor also said there will be “spot checks” at restaurants to ensure they’re following the rules on capacity limits at tables and mask wearing.
Earlier this month, Boston decided to delay the return of in-person schooling for most students after the positivity rate went over 4 percent. With virus numbers climbing, Walsh was asked at what point he would consider shutting the economy down again.
“It’s a hard question to answer right now — I’m hoping we won’t get there,” he said.
Walsh urged residents to think beyond themselves in complying with the rules.
“Think about our needs as a city to prevent another surge” and avoid another large-scale shutdown of businesses, Walsh said. “Our rates are going in the wrong direction. . . . To have in-person learning [in schools] we need to take this virus seriously.”
He warned that the consequences of flouting the rules could be dire.
“If we don’t do what we need to do, and we don’t start to take responsibility as individuals," Walsh said, he’ll have to return to the podium to “talk about shutting down the city again.”
The mayor noted that surges of the virus are happening around the country and globally.
“Look at what’s happening in England,” Walsh said. “Look what’s happening in Spain. Look what’s happening in Italy. Look what’s happening right here in the United States of America in New York City, in Denver, many cities in Florida. We are still very much in the battle with this virus.”
In London, new restrictions announced this week prohibit people from different households to meet indoors. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday imposed a curfew of 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. in Paris, while officials closed bars and clubs in Prague and Liverpool, according to The New York Times.
Marty Martinez, Walsh’s health and human services chief, said that at the peak of the pandemic, there were more than 570 Boston residents in hospital intensive care units. While today that number is in the 30s, a month ago it was in the single digits, said Martinez.
“Right now it’s still contained, but it doesn’t mean we’re not concerned about the upticks we’re starting to see,” he said.
Martinez said that starting Friday, there will be an online dashboard detailing COVID-19 cases within Boston Public Schools.
Walsh, who said he is now tested for COVID-19 about every two weeks, indicated that he plans to announce guidelines for Halloween trick-or-treating in the city next week.