Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday announced the toughest set of coronavirus-related restrictions since June, clamping down on the number of people allowed inside restaurants, groceries, and other public gathering spots in an attempt to stave off another holiday surge.
Capacity limits for most businesses will be lowered to 25 percent beginning Saturday and will remain restricted for at least two weeks, Baker said, prompting pushback from some who said companies may not survive another hit to their bottom lines.
He also ordered firm limits on the number of gatherings in private homes, venues, and public spaces. “Indoor and outdoor gathering limits will be reduced to 25 people outside and 10 people inside,” Baker said. “This is part of what we must do during this critical period, when the vaccine is just a few months away, to slow the spread.”
The state later reported 3,293 new confirmed cases of the virus, bringing the total number of active cases to 82,303. The Department of Public Health announced 43 new deaths from confirmed cases, bringing the death toll to 11,549.
Businesses subject to the 25 percent-capacity limit include restaurants and close-contact personal services such as hair salons and barbershops; movie theaters; casinos; office spaces; places of worship; retail stores; libraries; gyms; museums; cultural facilities; and common areas of hotels.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said hospitals in Massachusetts must postpone or cancel all nonessential, inpatient elective invasive procedures starting Saturday. It is the second time this month the state has directed hospitals to cancel surgeries in order to free up beds and staff.
Workers and staff will not count toward the capacity totals for restaurants, personal services, places of worship, and retail locations such as grocery stores.
The omission of workers from the limits at many businesses “is pretty important, especially if you are a small footprint business,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
Hurst, whose group represents about 4,000 members that include shops and restaurants, said the restrictions would have been harder to swallow had Baker put them in place before Christmas and disrupted the crucial holiday shopping season.
“I’m trying to look at a glass half-full as opposed to a glass half-empty,” Hurst said.
But omitting workers from the limits makes it questionable whether the restrictions will make a difference, according to Dr. Cassandra M. Pierre, an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and a physician at Boston Medical Center.
“Fifty bodies in a building is the same as 50 bodies in a building, whether they’re clients, or patients, or staff,” Pierre said by phone. “It sounds like it’s another half-step toward where we may actually need to be.”
Dr. David Roberts, chief executive of North Shore Medical Center in Salem, called Baker’s move “a step in the right direction.”
Roberts said his hospital’s beds are already at 98 percent capacity, and he’s worried about a Christmas surge. Making it harder for people to gather indoors will help control the virus, but as important, he added, is people refraining from gathering with extended family during the holidays.
“That would have a much bigger impact than closing restaurants,” said Roberts.
Still, the rollbacks irked advocates for small businesses that are most likely to be affected.
“It is unfortunate that small businesses that have followed the rules and dutifully adhered to all state guidelines are now forced to reduce their capacity,” said Christopher Carlozzi, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, in a statement. Carlozzi said struggling restaurants will be hurt the most, calling that sector “an industry already ravaged by the pandemic.”
Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said in a separate statement, “Restaurants of all shapes and sizes need an economic recovery plan, we just can’t increase regulations, without an increase in economic support.”
Nancy Caswell, the owner of Oak + Rowan restaurant in Boston and Brine on the North Shore, said navigating a patchwork of restrictions has been maddening and demoralizing to her staff, who are seeing their interactions with the public becoming increasingly fraught as fear and anxiety color the indoor dining experience.
Caswell said she’d prefer a temporary statewide shutdown, so long as it’s coupled with measures that would support restaurants where they need it most: clear parameters for how long the shutdown would last, grant-based relief for restaurants and their landlords, and additional unemployment benefits for workers.
“There has to be transparent communication,” she said. “If a shutdown or a two-week closure happens and there’s no understanding, I find a lot of people will be in complete despair and feel there’s still no end in sight.”
Erinn Danielle, the owner of Simply Erinn’s Unisex Hair Salon in Cambridge, said the restrictions will not affect her shop. Because of the pandemic, she and two other stylists take one client at a time by appointment.
Danielle said she doesn’t blame Baker for implementing further restrictions on businesses, since she thinks it “is what we need” to overcome the pandemic, especially during the holiday season.
“I’m disappointed that some people are not following the guidelines, thinking they are invincible,” she said.
Baker said the decision to impose new restrictions was “enormously difficult,” and his administration is also putting together a “significant” economic relief fund for small businesses that will bear the brunt of the rollbacks.
Though the governor didn’t reveal any details Tuesday, some regional examples could be a model for what’s to come. Last month, in response to a two-week statewide “pause” in small business operations, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo unveiled a $100 million measure that would support small businesses and their workers through $50 million in grants and an additional $50 million in extended unemployment benefits.
Amid surging hospitalizations and pressure to take more aggressive action, Baker rolled the state back to the first step of Phase 3 in its reopening plan earlier this month. The move closed indoor performance venues and recreation centers and limited capacity to 40 percent in businesses such as gyms, retail stores, and movie theaters.
Some municipalities, including Boston, have gone further.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Tuesday reminded residents that his city had scaled back reopening to a modified Phase 2, Step 2 approach on Dec. 16. That means venues such as theaters, museums, and gyms won’t reopen in Boston until at least Jan. 6, he said.
Like Baker, Walsh implored residents to limit their in-person holiday celebrations.
“You should only celebrate . . . with the people that you live with,” Walsh said.
Pierre, the Boston Medical Center physician, said there is likely to be another increase in infections after Christmas, as there was after Thanksgiving. People are lining up to get tested before the holidays, but a negative result could give them a false sense of security, she said.
“They may be tested the day before . . . but it’s just a point in time,” Pierre said. “People can turn positive after that. We’ve seen so many stories about how people get tested and then they go on their travels . . . and then wind up infecting loved ones.”
Jon Chesto of the Globe staff and correspondents Jeremy C. Fox and Anissa Gardizy contributed to this report.
Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos. Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.