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New survey tracks rise in activities that spread COVID-19 in Massachusetts

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

A new survey examining behavior during the pandemic has found that the state’s rise in COVID-19 infections unfolded as residents more frequently participated in activities that spread the virus, such as patronizing restaurants and gyms or being indoors with people who were not members of their immediate household.

The findings suggest the state should take more dramatic steps to stop the spread of the virus by temporarily halting indoor dining and closing gyms, because imploring residents to avoid large gatherings won’t be enough to keep them healthy, one of the researchers said Saturday.

“We are in a very dangerous place in Massachusetts, and part of that is almost certainly how we’ve changed our behaviors,” said David Lazer, a Northeastern University professor and researcher with the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, which sponsored the survey.


In its polling last month of 357 Massachusetts residents, the consortium found the number of people who reported visiting gyms and restaurants or being indoors with non-household members increased from April when much of society was closed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

For example, in April and May, fewer than 5 percent of respondents reported visiting a restaurant during the previous 24 hours, compared to 15 percent last month. In March, Massachusetts limited restaurants to take-out and delivery business. Options for outdoor and indoor dining resumed in June. At the end of August, nearly 20 percent of respondents said they had visited a restaurant.

Between April and October, the number of people who said they spent time indoors with non-household members doubled to 45 percent, the researchers said. Visits to gyms, which closed in March and reopened in July, jumped from less than 1 percent in April to 7 percent last month, the survey found.

Relaxing guard against those activities was less risky during the warmer months, Lazer said, but that strategy won’t carry the state safely through winter. Coronavirus infections have grown seven-fold since Labor Day, with Massachusetts reporting 2,841 new infections and 27 new deaths on Saturday.


If the new infections continue to grow at the current pace, the researchers said case counts in Massachusetts would exceed 10,000 per day by December. Lazer said there’s an urgent need for action.

“The problem is that the circumstances have changed,” he said. “If we wait longer, it will mean that more people will die and it will mean that we’ll have to shut down harder. Putting off or delaying the inevitable will not change the inevitable.”

The upcoming holiday season and traditional gatherings, where people come together from near and far, also pose a great risk for spreading the virus, he said.

The state’s COVID-19 Command Center said Saturday that most new infections stem from informal gatherings where people let down their guard and don’t wear masks. More than 2,000 people are conducting contact tracing and 350 are being recruited, the state said.

A command center spokeswoman urged residents to wear masks in public and abide by an advisory to stay home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Research published Nov. 10 in the journal Nature found restaurants, gyms, cafes, and other crowded indoor venues accounted for some 8 in 10 new infections in the pandemic’s early months in the US. The study used cellphone mobility data from 10 cities between March and May, though Boston wasn’t included.


The COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States has polled nearly 120,000 people in 50 states and Washington, D.C., since April to gather information about behavior during the pandemic. The group expects to release the findings of its October survey of jurisdictions outside Massachusetts on Thursday or Friday, Lazer said.

In recent weeks, Governor Charlie Baker has taken steps to slow the spread of COVID-19.

On Nov. 6, several new executive orders took effect, including requirements for 9:30 p.m. closures for in-person restaurant dining, gyms, and other businesses.

The statewide mask rule also changed. Under the altered order, Baker required masks be worn by anyone in any public space, indoor or outdoor, regardless of the ability to maintain social distancing.

Massachusetts residents have mostly embraced wearing masks outside the home, according to the survey. The number of respondents who reported wearing face masks rose from 65 percent in April to about 80 percent or better every month since June.

“We were early adopters,” Lazer said.

On Friday, Baker announced another stark development: plans to reopen the first field hospital in roughly five months at the DCU Center in Worcester. The 240-bed facility is expected to be ready, if needed, by the first week of December.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at Follow her @lauracrimaldi.