Boston authorities are mulling more drastic measures to curb COVID-19, including a reduction to the limits for both indoor and outdoor gatherings and a weekslong pause to indoor restaurant dining amid a feared resurgence of the novel coronavirus, officials said Friday.
The potential restrictions, which would mark a further rollback of the city’s reopening, were announced during a virtual roundtable discussion about the ongoing public health emergency Friday morning. Marty Martinez, the city’s health and human services chief, said officials are considering reducing the limit for indoor gatherings from 25 people to 10 people in the city and reducing the limit for outdoor gatherings from 50 people to 25 people. The cap of 25 people for outdoor gatherings could be tethered to fines for organizers of such events.
Boston authorities are also considering a pause of between two and three weeks for indoor dining in the city, according to Martinez.
“It’s important right now when we see this uptick, we have to do all the prevention stuff that’s in front of us, but we also have to consider how might we tighten restrictions on some of the reopening efforts,” said Martinez during the meeting.
None of those measures, Martinez emphasized, are set in stone, but he did acknowledge “More indoor activity with more people is going to continue to spread COVID.”
Philip Frattaroli, who owns Cunard Tavern in East Boston, was among those restauranteurs in the city to balk at the idea of suspending indoor dining for weeks.
“I think to scapegoat restaurant dining is misguided,” he said during a phone interview. “There are lot of other factors going. Restaurants are fighting for survival.”
He added, “I don’t think you can point to the restaurant industry for the jump in cases. Stuff like this would be disastrous for many restaurants who are barely hanging on.”
Another Eastie restauranteur, Josh Weinstein, who owns The Quiet Few, had a different take.
“I personally have no problem with it,” said Weinstein. “We have not opened for indoor dining and we are not going to until there is a treatment or a vaccine. This is something that would not affect us.”
Andy Husbands, who owns The Smoke Shop BBQ in Fort Point, thought the city should examine “everything,” especially if infection rates continue to rise, while also acknowledging that any indoor dining pause would make things tougher for the restaurant industry.
“We’re preparing for the worst and planning for the best,” he said.
Additionally, the city will have full remote learning for Boston Public Schools until it sees two weeks of a sustained decrease in the average number of COVID-19 cases, said Martinez.
Last week, the city’s public school district canceled in-person instruction for thousands of high-needs students — the only group to return to school buildings so far this fall. On Friday, Martinez said the city is “nowhere near” the COVID-19 levels where the city would feel comfortable reopening schools to in-person learning.
“Right now all those metrics, either the positivity and the cases, are moving in the wrong direction," he said.
The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts exceeded 1,000 for the sixth straight day on Thursday, and 121 communities are considered high risk for COVID-19, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Boston remained in the “red zone,” a designation given to communities that have had more than 8 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, per day, in the last 14 days.
The statewide daily average rate of infection per 100,000 residents was at 11.8, up from 9.2 last week. Boston’s average daily rate was at 15.8, up from 12.0 last week.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing an increase in activity in terms of positive cases as well as hospital utilization," said Dr. Jennifer Lo, the Boston Public Health Commission’s medical director, during Friday’s roundtable. "These increases we haven’t seen since May.”
Earlier this month, Mayor Martin J. Walsh 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.
During Friday’s virtual roundtable, Martinez said that if a home has played host to multiple gatherings, “inspectional services can not only visit that house . . . but they can contact the owner, they can fine the owner in that scenario.”
He said city inspectors will be on the lookout for Halloween parties during this upcoming weekend.
Amid Massachusetts' rising COVID-19 cases comes a new concern: a drop-off in new tests in Boston, a city at high risk for community spread.
Boston’s weekly count of residents who were tested for the first time declined nearly 50 percent over a monthlong period, data provided by the Boston Public Health Commission shows. The decline, which officials attribute to “COVID fatigue,” has prompted city leaders to urge more residents to seek testing, even if they think they are low-risk — advice scientists say all Commonwealth residents would be wise to follow.
Martinez said city officials are meeting with leadership from the city’s hospitals next week to “learn about issues they are encountering.” The hope, he said, is that there will not be a need to open a field hospital, something officials did in the early stages of the public health crisis, when a 1,000-bed, pop-up field hospital was built in the city’s cavernous convention center in the Seaport.
While the coronavirus numbers are headed in the wrong direction in the city, Martinez said that at the pandemic’s peak, the city was seeing about 1,500 COVID-19 patients in its hospitals. Right now, about 110 people fall into that category, said Martinez. The city is planning to break down race, ethnicity, and age information by neighborhood on a weekly basis to better understand who is being affected by community spread of the virus in Boston, officials said. Authorities also plan to tighten up the tracking of “problem areas,” and work to prevent activities from occurring.