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Saving the economy and saving lives, business executives urge local officials to expand COVID-19 testing

People waited in line to get a COVID-19 test outside of a testing site at Tufts Medical Center where the line stretched around three sides of the building.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Rattled by a resurgent pandemic, public officials and business executives are scrambling to avoid another destructive lockdown by closing only a sliver of the economy in the hardest hit cities and towns, while pushing for a radical expansion of testing into everyday life.

Last week, as beleaguered leaders in Britain, France, and Germany shut down most nonessential businesses, officials here began rolling out less-drastic restrictions, but warned that more measures might be needed to contain the virus in order to preserve the holiday season. The Baker administration closed indoor hockey rinks, while Boston said it may reduce the number of people permitted to gather and temporarily halt indoor dining at restaurants, and Revere said it would cut capacity at big-box stores starting this week.


Business executives, meanwhile, are urging municipal officials to aggressively expand COVID-19 testing and tracing, saying it could help keep the economy open. They are calling for frequent and widespread screening — not just for frontline workers such as doctors and nurses as happens now, but for far more residents. Sometimes called serial testing, proponents say it would make it easier to isolate more people earlier in their illness, especially those without symptoms, who can unwittingly infect others.

The developments in Massachusetts and Europe underscored the limited options available to local leaders. Locking down the state again is an extraordinary step they don’t want to take. It would not only put hundreds of thousands of people out of work, but such a move would likely be ineffective without neighboring states going along.

“You shut Massachusetts down, you have New Hampshire right there,” said Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken. “Everyone is everyone’s backyard.”

That puts restaurants, for now, in the crosshairs of local officials, as well as gyms and other businesses where people come into close contact.


Along with Boston, others mayors in the metro region have discussed the potential for a coordinated closure of dining inside restaurants for a few weeks to control the virus in the hope that by December consumers will feel comfortable venturing out during the holidays.

Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria said he doesn’t like the idea of closures, but believes it’s important that such restrictions are done “as a collective group” because it’s too easy for consumers to drive to a neighboring city to eat out.

“If we can do that for two weeks and only two weeks, and if that can save the holiday season and the restaurants, that’s good,” said DeMaria, whose city is considered a COVID-19 hot spot.

Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, whose city also has high infection rates and offers free screenings, is looking at how to leverage testing to keep more businesses open. One option: The city may require some employers, such as restaurants, to have workers tested multiple times a week.

“We’re not going to get our economy back and going if there is no consumer confidence,” said Arrigo. “If there are things we can do to pump up consumer confidence and they know they can go to a place and they can be safe, that will be helpful.”

Meanwhile, Revere on Tuesday will further reduce capacity at big-box retailers to five customers per 1,000 square feet of sales space. The state currently allows ten customers.


Many affected businesses complain that data released by the state last week don’t convincingly trace clusters of infections to their operations. The largest number of clusters — identified as two or more confirmed cases with a common exposure — were among members of the same household, and tracers were not necessarily able to link them to workplaces, social gatherings, or other activities.

“If you are going to pull the rug out from under a business and make it close up, you should have the evidence to back it up,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber.

Contact tracing done by Baystate Health has found that private gatherings, especially among younger people, are a main source of a clusters, according to Dr. Mark Keroack, chief executive of the Springfield-based health system.

“You really want to go where the action is,” he said, advocating for tougher enforcement of social-distancing rules. “Closing restaurants could actually make it worse,” Keroack said, by encouraging people to gather in smaller residential spaces.

The search for new tactics to contain the pandemic has become more urgent as infections in Massachusetts reach levels not seen since May. The number of communities designated as high risk has grown from eight in mid-August to 121 on Thursday — a full one-third of cities and towns, and 61 percent of the state population, according to a Globe analysis.

While Massachusetts has been a national leader in testing, it hasn’t been enough to prevent the new surge.


“We have to move from reactive testing to more proactive testing, and make it easier and more public,” said Steve Pagliuca, the Bain Capital cochair who this past spring spearheaded a blueprint for Massachusetts employers on how to reopen the economy.

Combined with mask-wearing and social distancing, rigorous testing would reduce the spread and keep more people at work, said Pagliuca, who is also co-owner of the Boston Celtics and advised the National Basketball Association on the bubble strategy that isolated teams in one location, allowing the league to finish its season.

“I don’t think it’s too late to put a renewed, big emphasis on testing,” said Simon Johnson, an economics professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management who has worked on coronavirus response strategies since the outbreak of the pandemic.

He pointed to the success of local universities such as Northeastern and Tufts, which “have kept a lid on infections” by testing all students and faculty as many as three times a week. “You can take that exact same strategy to K-12, child care, and businesses,” he said.

Northeastern University built its own testing operation. Students are screened three days a week, and faculty twice a week. The university is running 5,000 to 7,000 tests a day, with results returned in 12 to 24 hours, according to spokeswoman Renata Nyul.

It’s part of a $50 million investment that has allowed Northeastern to bring back nearly all its students while keeping the average seven-day positivity rate at 0.07 percent, compared with 1.8 percent statewide.


Like the value of masking, widespread testing is starting to take root among government officials as a new weapon to fight the virus. Last week Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh took the unusual step of urging many Bostonians to get tested — especially anyone who leaves home for work or other reasons.

The call for widespread testing comes amid a growing realization that any COVID-19 vaccine is unlikely to be the silver bullet that can supercharge the economy in 2021. The vaccines won’t be available to everyone initially, and some people may be hesitant to take them.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, Massachusetts is processing roughly 70,000 tests per day, but the state’s own dashboard indicates wide fluctuations day to day. The Commonwealth has the capacity to process more than 100,000 tests per day, with more than 250 testing sites and free screenings in 18 communities, according to Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the state’s COVID-19 Command Center.

The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT — which is the state’s biggest viral testing facility — is processing about 70,000 tests a day. But most of that is for clients outside of Massachusetts, including many colleges and universities in the Northeast. The Broad Institute estimates it accounts for about 10 percent of all US viral testing.

Sufficient capacity for widespread testing will take time to put in place. It remains to be seen whether the targeted restrictions officials are pursuing in the meantime will be enough to spare Massachusetts the second broad lockdown many Europeans must now endure.

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to the Globe, a story on the pandemic and the economy misstated the building occupancy limits for Massachusetts. The state currently allows ten customers per 1,000 square feet of space.