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Different cities, different rules: A regional rollback that’s all over the map

Worried that Governor Charlie Baker hasn’t moved fast enough to implement more stringent statewide measures to curb a worrisome surge of COVID-19 cases, mayors and town managers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.
Worried that Governor Charlie Baker hasn’t moved fast enough to implement more stringent statewide measures to curb a worrisome surge of COVID-19 cases, mayors and town managers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.Scott Eisen/Getty

You can sit at a bar and have lunch in Quincy, but not in Dorchester. You can catch a movie at a theater in Watertown, but screens are dark next door in Newton. And if you want to hit the gym, try Medford or Cambridge over Somerville and Arlington, where they won’t let you work up a sweat indoors.

Worried that Governor Charlie Baker hasn’t moved fast enough to implement more stringent statewide measures to curb a worrisome surge of COVID-19 cases, mayors and town managers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

But in doing so they’ve created a hodgepodge of local rules and restrictions, an approach that many say is frustrating to business owners, confusing to residents, and might not do enough to contain a virus that’s spreading at a rapid clip.

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“COVID doesn’t care about our city lines,” said Jessica Eshleman, executive director of Union Square Main Streets, which advocates for small businesses in that Somerville neighborhood. “It goes where it wants.”

Eshleman’s members — restaurants, yoga studios, even an ax-throwing business — live in one of the communities that this week banded together to go beyond Baker’s restrictions by rolling back some activity considered higher-risk for spreading COVID-19. Somerville on Monday joined Boston, Newton, Arlington, Lynn, and Brockton in closing gyms and places where people tend to gather inside — including movie theaters and museums — and further tightening restrictions on indoor dining. But even among those communities, precise rules vary, and some of their close neighbors — Quincy and Brookline, for instance — have decided for now to stick with Baker’s looser statewide rules. Meantime, others are still crafting approaches of their own.

That’s making for a complex situation on the ground, particularly in cities such as Somerville and Cambridge, neighbors so closely intertwined that many who live in them call it “Camberville.”

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Some retail districts — from Davis Square to Inman Square to the aptly-named Twin Cities Plaza shopping center off McGrath Highway — effectively straddle Cambridge and Somerville. You can walk a couple of blocks, or just across a parking lot, from one city to the other

“Something like 80 percent of our population lives within a half-mile of another municipality,” said Steven Mackey, president of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce. “You can stand in Davis Square and basically be in Cambridge. You can stand in Ball Square and see Medford.”

Yet throughout the pandemic, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has been perhaps the most aggressive mayor in Greater Boston when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions, keeping many businesses closed during the summer for weeks longer than most of the region. Mackey said he understands why Curtatone has taken a hard line in an effort to keep the virus in check — and indeed Somerville’s infection rates remain lower than many neighboring communities north of Boston. He just wishes more of Somerville’s neighbors were doing the same.

So does Eshleman. Her neighborhood, a few blocks north of the Cambridge line, has seen a growing roster of mainstay restaurants and bars shut their doors for good. Many that remain open are now being forced to close or cut back on their hours for three weeks. Some fear that puts them at risk of losing customers for far longer.

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“The speculation that people will walk 20 minutes to someplace else that’s open has proven absolutely true,” she said. “You can see the yoga mats heading out of Somerville.”

Across the border in Cambridge, officials are also wrestling with questions about tougher COVID-19 restrictions. Like Boston and Somerville, Cambridge has taken a fairly aggressive tack, shutting down construction projects in the spring and imposing some of the region’s strictest mask-wearing rules.

But during the current wave of shutdowns, Cambridge has been a bit slower to act.

Nearly a month ago, before Thanksgiving and the predicted second surge, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon proposed closing “nonessential indoor activities.” But they were blocked on the city council and faced aggressive pushback from local business groups that worried the city would be out of step with bordering communities that were taking such steps.

On Monday, when several of those neighbors did announce new restrictions, Cambridge still held back. City Manager Louis DePasquale, who would ultimately decide whether to put in place any rollbacks, told city councilors that he’s been in daily talks with Curtatone and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. But he wasn’t ready to join them in tightening restrictions, at least not yet.

“We’re moving in that direction,” said DePasquale. “We’re going to get there, but every city is a little different.”

Siddiqui said that Cambridge has an array of issues to work through before asking any business to close its doors. But she said being the only community around with so many businesses open carries risks, too.

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“We don’t want a situation where everyone from Boston and Somerville is coming here because they’re closed up,” she said. “It’s important to have a regional approach.”

On that, nearly everyone agrees, with mayors and business groups urging Baker to take a firmer stand while also providing more aid to struggling businesses that must temporarily close. The shortage of help from Washington and Beacon Hill alike has put added pressure on mayors and city managers, said Cambridge’s Mallon. And every one of them is dealing with a different set of circumstances. Which often means a different response — even among neighbors.

“At this point, they’re basically leaving [Massachusetts’] 351 cities and towns to each implement their own rollback,” she said. “But none of us live in a gated community. It’s just sort of a recipe for disaster.”


Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.