Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday announced a series of incremental steps to curb the surge of COVID-19 infections, issuing new restrictions on a range of business activities as part of an effort to “build ourselves a bridge to the vaccine,” but stopping short of more forceful mandates.
The frightening trends in the march of the virus — underscored by the 3,627 new cases and 40 additional deaths that were announced Tuesday — mean the state cannot “simply wait for the vaccine to get here,” Baker said. “We have to do more.”
The rollback begins Sunday, returning the state to an earlier iteration of restrictions, while also adding new rules on a range of sectors. Restaurants, in particular, will face several new requirements designed to further slow the spread of the virus indoors, including a 90-minute time limit on dining and fewer people per table — mandates that drew a mixed reaction from the hospitality industry and epidemiologists.
Public health experts lauded the governor for stepping up restrictions, but said that new measures still stop far short of what is needed to blunt the rapid rise in infection and limit the strain on the health care system.
“I applaud the governor. I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, who over the weekend urged Baker to take more aggressive public health measures.
But, Jha said, “from a pure public health point of view, is this going to be enough to curtail the exponential growth we’re seeing in Massachusetts? Not even close, no.”
Baker’s order will return every city and town in Massachusetts to Phase 3 Step 1 in the state’s four-phase reopening plan, and will mean the closure of certain businesses such as theaters and other indoor performance venues and some high-contact indoor recreational facilities.
Baker’s announcement also will ratchet back capacity to 40 percent for virtually every other type of business, including retail outlets, gyms, libraries, museums, houses of worship, and movie theaters. Outdoor gatherings will be capped at 50 people, down from 100 currently, and anyone who plans to host more than 25 people at an outdoor event will be required to alert their local board of health.
For those businesses that must close, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said she hopes shutdown will be temporary, and said the closures would be reversed when hospitalization rates and other public health data stabilize. Neither she nor Baker indicated how long that might take.
Patrons at restaurants and other places that offer sit-down dining can only linger over meals for an hour and half under the new rules, and must keep masks on at all times when they are not actively eating or drinking. That’s a change from current rules, in which diners can remove masks as soon as they sit at their table.
In addition, restaurants can only seat six people per table, down from 10, and the administration is urging residents to dine only with people in their own household to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.
The new restaurant limits drew mixed reactions. Bob Luz, the president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, praised Baker for continuing to defend the industry and its track record for COVID-related compliance. He placed the blame for the surge in cases elsewhere.
“It’s unfortunate that residents continue to ignore travel warnings and to gather unregulated in their homes causing further economic restrictions,” he said.
Luz indicated that the new limitations are challenging, but he hopes they will not deter people from dining out. Even before Baker’s action, six-person limits were already in place in Boston and Cambridge, and many restaurants have already placed their own 90-minute restrictions on how long patrons can dine.
But Massachusetts Restaurants United, which represents independent restaurants, called the rollbacks “another blow to struggling restaurants at a precarious moment.”
The group said it has pleaded for months with the Baker administration for “targeted support” to help them survive, and they “are deeply disappointed that Governor Baker’s announcement did not come with any emergency relief measures.”
Under the new restrictions, gyms must require patrons to use masks at all times — a measure that could pose health risks, said Robin Krane, the owner of Fitness Within studio in Reading.
“Have you ever worked out with a mask on? Some people will pass out,” she said. “We do high-intensity . . . classes. This is not your typical Jane Fonda workout.”
Krane said that she and the other 128 gyms in the Massachusetts Independent Fitness Operators group are looking into whether they can push back on the restrictions.
“We don’t spread the virus,” she said.
Tuesday’s announcement is the latest step Baker has taken since cases started to surge again in the state. In early November, the governor issued a stay-at-home advisory, encouraging people to stay put at night, and an updated mask order requiring everyone over age 5 to wear face coverings in public. That was an escalation of a prior order that had only required masks in public places where social distancing wasn’t possible.
Baker announced Monday that hospitals will temporarily curtail inpatient elective surgeries to make room for a further influx of patients with COVID-19.
But beyond new government regulations, Baker continued to appeal to residents to take personal responsibility.
“We are going to continue to be as aggressive as we can in fighting the virus, but actually there is nothing more powerful than people playing their part and understanding their role,” Baker said.
Some public health experts would prefer the governor take more aggressive action.
Samuel Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist, said the steps announced Tuesday, on their own, are “unlikely to have a strong effect.”
He noted that the rate of people getting tested for the first time who are positive for COVID-19 is at the same rate it was when the state began Phase 1 of reopening back in May. Case numbers and average daily deaths are also similar to metrics seen at that point, and hospitalizations will likely match or exceed late May levels in the next two weeks, Scarpino said.
But new restrictions could have a ripple effect on residents’ behaviors, Scarpino continued. “It may be that they do spur people into deciding not to go to dinner, or businesses to stop having people go into work — and that would have an effect,” he said.
Asked about criticism from health specialists and others, Baker pointed to the difficult trade-offs involved in deciding to close businesses, especially for low-wage workers.
He also suggested that the lack of additional unemployment and other relief money from Congress is complicating the decision-making around shutting down economic activity. On Monday, Baker and three other Republican governors issued a joint statement pushing Congress to pass a relief package this month, calling it “essential” to their constituents’ survival.
The shutdown in the spring “had a calamitous impact on people who didn’t have MBAs or MPHs or the ability to do their job from home, or were white-collar workers who worked in finance or accounting or law,” Baker said. “The people who really got creamed by that are the people who actually have to get up and go to work somewhere.”
Decisions regarding virus prevention, Baker said, “might seem easy to some people who don’t have to live with them, but don’t feel that easy to the people that do.”
Travis Andersen, Dasia Moore, and Janelle Nanos of the Globe staff contributed to this story.