When announcing the state’s new COVID-19 restrictions Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker told a story about a friend who refused to dine indoors with people she had not seen in months, and faced blowback. The two people who did dine indoors, the governor said, ended up testing positive for COVID-19, justifying her wise decision.
The moral the governor seemed to want to convey with this anecdote was that people should follow the state’s advice not to dine with those outside their households and should accept their friends’ good public health decisions. But the more poignant moral of the story — given that the meeting of households presumably didn’t happen, while the infections still did — is that dining indoors at restaurants right now is dangerous. That’s why it’s perplexing that the state is allowing indoor dining to continue even as it tightens restrictions on indoor gatherings and acknowledges that COVID-19 is a growing burden on hospitals and health care workers.
The health of the Massachusetts economy, including its restaurants, ultimately depends on the health and survival of its people. That means doing whatever it takes now to stop the spread of COVID-19 until there is a widely available vaccine.
Cases of the virus have been surging in the Commonwealth since Thanksgiving, a fact that Baker bemoaned in press conferences Monday and Tuesday, noting they “took off like a rocket.” More than 11,000 people have died in the state from the virus, and as of October, we had one of the highest death rates per capita in the region. Meanwhile, more than half of public school students haven’t returned to in-person learning. And effective Friday, hospitals will postpone many elective in-patient surgeries, the governor also announced, to free up beds and staff for people sick with COVID-19.
It’s been well established — and acknowledged by the governor — that indoor transmission is the primary driver of the spread of COVID-19. But for weeks, the state’s two casinos have remained open for in-person gambling, tanning and nail salons have remained open, and retail businesses around the state have faced a patchwork of rules and enforcement about the number of people that can be gathered indoors at one time. In moving the Commonwealth back to Phase 3, Step 1 of its reopening process, effective this Sunday, the Baker administration will now reduce most indoor gathering capacity to 40 percent, including in gyms, libraries, and museums. Indoor performance venues and many indoor recreation facilities will close. It’s a welcome, if belated, crackdown.
But despite the new restrictions, dining indoors in groups of as many as six people, as long as it’s for less than 90 minutes, will be allowed to continue in restaurants in the Commonwealth. While the state is requiring that masks be worn at all times when restaurant patrons are not eating or drinking (which will protect wait staff during ordering), it’s safe to say the vast majority of the time that people are in restaurants involves doing one of those two things — which makes unmasked transmission of the virus more likely inside restaurants compared with other businesses. (Research has shown the comparatively high risk associated with indoor dining from the onset of the pandemic.)
Leading public health experts, in a region that is home to a disproportionate share, have recently criticized the governor’s response as sluggish. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, who has previously praised Baker’s science-based response to the pandemic, said he has become “aghast at lack of action” over the past six weeks. Jha said in an e-mail to the Globe editorial board that in addition to cutting indoor dining capacity back to, at most, 25 percent, “the 10 people in a household gathering is probably too high — and likely not enforced widely.”
No one wants to see their favorite restaurants shuttered, least of all the people who own and are employed by them, and restaurants have been especially hard hit in the pandemic. But the answer to that crisis is not to compromise public health and put dining patrons and staff in danger. To shore up businesses over the coming weeks, the Baker administration and other leaders on Beacon Hill could enthusiastically encourage takeout dining and further expand and fund aid programs to small businesses. The governor might also further implore congressional leaders in his own party to provide stimulus funds to restaurant owners.
Both swift timing and a coordinated response are critical to stop the spread of the epidemic; half measures will all but ensure that hospitals and health care workers see more COVID cases in coming weeks and that more families in the Commonwealth lose loved ones. The governor should shut down indoor dining now to tame community spread of COVID-19. Failing that, people who want a change of menu or to support local restaurants would be wise to just order lots of takeout.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.