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Baker tells businesses they’re not to blame for the rise in COVID-19 cases

Gov. Charlie Baker spoke during a press conference on Nov. 2 at the State House in which he announced that restaurant table service would have to stop at 9:30 p.m. each night, among other restrictions.
Gov. Charlie Baker spoke during a press conference on Nov. 2 at the State House in which he announced that restaurant table service would have to stop at 9:30 p.m. each night, among other restrictions.Sam Doran/Pool

Governor Charlie Baker sought to assure state business leaders on Friday that their workplaces aren’t driving the recent steep increase in COVID-19 cases.

In a speech delivered to the Associated Industries of Massachusetts trade group, Baker described the broad shutdowns he imposed on the economy last spring as bitter but necessary medicine. It’s a step he hopes he doesn’t have to take again.

“The kind of drastic action we took last spring, while I believe it was the right thing to do at the time, has tremendous downside consequences attached to it,” Baker said during the virtual event. “The consequences of not having people work from an economic and a psychological and a public health point of view are very real. It continues to be a tremendous challenge for us.”

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Baker said his objective is to keep the businesses that are following COVID-19 safeguards “running to the fullest extent they can be.”

“The thing that’s driving these cases,” Baker added, “is not work. [It’s] social gatherings.”

The governor said he fears what will happen when families and friends gather indoors at Thanksgiving. He said Canada’s Thanksgiving holiday last month led to a surge of COVID-19 cases in that country.

“I’m scared to death about Thanksgiving,” Baker said. “I’m not kidding when I say that.”

AIM chief executive John Regan said some of the group’s members have told him they would not be able to recover from a second shutdown. From Regan’s perspective, Baker believes that the vast majority of employers are following strict safety protocols.

“Because of that, he is reluctant to make that draconian step” of a second shutdown, Regan said. “He has said … that they’ll go where the data takes you. Let’s hope the data doesn’t take us there.”

But Baker hasn’t been afraid to impose new restrictions on businesses to curb the increasing spread of the coronavirus. Among those: a curfew requiring the shutdown of restaurants and entertainment venues at 9:30 p.m. The new rule, which took effect last week, allows diners to stay open until 10, as long as table service ends by 9:30. (Many Northeast states have adopted similar restrictions.)

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Restaurants have asked the Baker administration for at least an extra hour at night on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, but so far have had no luck.

Richard Brackett, managing partner at The Federal in Waltham, said his steakhouse could be crushed by losing an extra wave, or “turn,” of customers caused by the early curfew. He cited state data showing that less than 1 percent of COVID cases can be traced back to restaurants.

“We’re asking for one hour a day, three hours a week,” Brackett said.

Bob Luz, chief executive of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, has led the charge for that extra hour. But he also worries the restrictions could get even tighter. For example, he said, Pittsfield just became the first city in Massachusetts to completely ban sit-down dining this fall.

“The administration is being very cautious at this point,” Luz said.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.