Mayors in some of the region’s biggest cities — including Boston, Brockton, Lynn, Newton, and Somerville — have agreed to close down gyms, museums, movie theaters, and other aspects of their battered economies as rising infection rates force officials to roll back their tentative steps toward normalcy.
In the coming days, more cities and towns are expected to join the effort to put in place a modified version of Phase 2, Step 2 of the state’s reopening plan, a three-week pause that will begin in some communities as soon as Wednesday. The move made it clear that some municipal leaders do not think the state is doing enough to control the spread of COVID-19.
“We are going to take action now to reduce in-person activity in our city,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said at press briefing at Faneuil Hall on Monday. “We’re working to slow the spread of the virus in our city and prevent our hospitals from getting overwhelmed.”
The businesses that will be required to close for at least three weeks in the cities include indoor fitness centers and health clubs, movie theaters, museums, aquariums, sightseeing and other organized tours, indoor historical spaces and sites, and arcades, among other places. While mayors have generally agreed to return to Phase 2, exact details and timing are still being worked out city by city.
Boston will return to Phase 2 on Wednesday, and after three weeks, it will re-evaluate the new restrictions. If the COVID-19 numbers such as hospitalizations move in the right direction, they will be lifted, according to Walsh.
Indoor dining will be able to continue during the rollback, but bar seating will be restricted and the 90-minute time limit per party that was announced previously remains in effect.
“Restaurants will eventually be shut down if our numbers continue to go up,” said Walsh. “The biggest thing we want to see with these rollbacks is that our numbers come down.”
Mayors and town managers have been meeting to discuss ways to act regionally as the second surge threatens to overwhelm the health care system. Some municipal leaders have struggled with doing more but found it difficult to shutter businesses without giving them a financial lifeline. Others even considered enacting tougher measures on their own, but that would do little to contain the virus because residents flow freely from one community to the other.
But with COVID cases skyrocketing and hospitals under strain, local officials over the weekend decided they needed to do more. For the city of Newton, which will roll back on Friday, Boston’s decision was a key factor in the suburb’s return to Phase 2.
“Newton is part of a regional fabric that is porous in terms of the spread of COVID 19,” said Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller. Boston “is Newton’s immediate next-door neighbor, and it’s a city that many of our residents work in and visit the MFA and Aquarium, and patronize the businesses and bars there. … As COVID-19 surges forward regionally, it is best for the city of Newton to roll back.”
Some cities will need the approval of their local boards of health before they pass more restrictions. Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone — who co-chairs a coalition of about 30 leaders from cities and towns in Greater Boston — said he expects by next week as many as 20 communities to join the regional roll back.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said she is “strongly considering” moving back to Phase 2. She also wants to give affected businesses, notably the city’s museums, more time to prepare for a temporary closure.
“We try to give people a week’s notice,” said Driscoll, the coalition’s other co-chair. “We’re talking the two weeks before Christmas. We are talking real impact to employees.”
While Curtatone called the regional rollback an “important step,” he said it likely won’t be enough. He also called for a ban on indoor dining. Curtatone said even more drastic restrictions should come with more federal and state stimulus to blunt the economic impact of a tougher shutdown. In Somerville, he plans to propose the city spend another $5 million to help small businesses affected by the pandemic.
“We need to go farther,” said Curtatone.
The regional effort comes a week after Baker announced a series of incremental steps to curb the surge by issuing more restrictions on a range of business activities as part of an effort to “build ourselves a bridge to the vaccine.” That statewide rollback started on Sunday, which included reducing capacity at retailers from 50 percent to 40 percent and tightening rules at restaurants such as requiring customers to wear masks at all times except when eating or drinking.
“Municipalities have the jurisdiction to implement local restrictions and the Baker-Polito administration fully supports local officials’ efforts to slow the spread,” said Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw in a statement.
Since Thanksgiving, the Commonwealth has been experiencing a spike in COVID cases and hospitalizations after people gathered with different households and traveled out of state during the holiday.
Boston Health and Human Services Chief Marty Martinez, who joined Walsh at the press briefing, said hospital metrics prompted the city to roll back to Phase 2. “Right now, we have over 300 COVID positive patients in the Boston hospitals,” said Martinez. “We haven’t been at that number since June.”
The state reported that the number of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts rose by 3,572 on Monday, bringing the total to 283,146. The death toll from confirmed cases increased by 37 to 11,135. Public health experts forecast that cases and deaths will continue to rise through January.
On Monday, Walsh also warned higher education institutions that if they plan on bringing additional students to campus in the spring they will need further city approval, according to college officials who were on a call with the mayor.
Harvard University and Berklee College of Music have been among schools that have announced they hope to bring back more students next semester, pointing to the success that higher education institutions had this fall in controlling the spread of COVID-19 through extensive testing, contact tracing and social distancing programs.
Before Walsh’s announcement, a growing number of restaurants and museums had already decided to close on their own in part to protect the health of their employees and customers.
The Boston Children’s Museum shuttered Monday and won’t reopen until Jan. 7, while the Institute of Contemporary Art closed indefinitely last week. Museum leaders, however, have been quick to point out that their cultural institutions have not been a source of spread.
“Even though we have no evidence of community transmission among visitors or staff at the Aquarium, we must do our part to help slow the spread,” New England Aquarium chief executive Vikki Spruill said in her statement announcing its pending closure.
For gyms, it is a particularly tough time for them to close their doors because they typically see a spike in memberships over New Year’s as people join to work off holiday weight gain.
“A lot of operators like ourselves have created the strictest safest protocol to minimize spread and honestly it’s been working, so to hear this news is disappointing,” said Mark Partin, part-owner of B/Spoke Studio fitness centers in Boston, Wellesley, and Mashpee.
In November, Partin opened a pop-up 20,000-square-foot spin studio in South Boston with social distancing protocols and ventilation in place. He said that over the past few days, his members have been adjusting to wearing masks during their workouts, which the state recently required.
“People were showing up and rising to the occasion,” he said. “But that’s over now.”
Janelle Nanos, Deirdre Fernandes, and Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.