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Baker extending capacity restrictions on businesses for two weeks due to pandemic

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.Nicolaus Czarnecki/BH

Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday that the state is extending by two weeks the capacity restrictions on various industries to combat the spread of COVID-19, as Connecticut announced that two cases of the new, highly contagious coronavirus variant have been identified in that state.

Baker, speaking during a State House news conference, said the restrictions will now be extended until at least Jan. 24 as part of efforts to tap down the virus and help hospitals deal with growing concerns about patient capacity. Acute care beds in Massachusetts hospitals have gone from about 67 percent occupied before Thanksgiving to 83 percent occupied by Dec. 15.

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For most businesses, he said, capacity limits will remain at 25 percent. Indoor and outdoor gathering limits will remain 25 people outside and 10 people inside, including for events. “And over the next two weeks we’ll continue to look at and evaluate the data to make further decisions,” he added.

The move was announced as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts rose by 7,136 Thursday, while the seven-day average rose to 4,820, the highest number yet during the state’s pandemic.

The death toll from confirmed cases increased by 71 to 12,634, the Department of Public Health reported.

In Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont announced that the two cases of the virus variant were found in residents of New Haven County, between the ages of 15 and 25, who had recently traveled outside the state — one to Ireland and the other to New York — and developed symptoms within a few days of their return.

The easily transmissible new variant, known as B.1.1.7, was first discovered in the United Kingdom and has since spread to dozens of countries and several states, including California, Colorado, Florida, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

No case linked to the variant has been announced in Massachusetts, though virologists believe it is almost certainly here.

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Lamont said in a statement that both residents were interviewed by contact tracers soon after their COVID-19 diagnosis, and their close contacts also were identified. One of the residents has completed self-isolation while the other is still self-isolating at home. Genomic sequencing of the individuals’ specimens, conducted by Yale and the state Public Health Laboratory, determined the cases are unrelated.

The state’s Department of Public Health has alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the cases, the statement said.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, Baker conceded that the continuing restrictions in the commonwealth are trying for small businesses.

“But we need to stay in this game a little longer, especially during this most crucial period,” Baker said, adding that “we also launched a new round of grants that are available for small businesses.”

State Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders detailed efforts to address shrinking hospital capacity amid the spike in COVID cases.

“Earlier today we designated our statewide hospital capacity to the highest level of concern,” or Tier 4, Sudders said. The seven-day average of available hospital capacity had dipped below the established threshold of 20 percent across the state.

“Direct-care staff are being reassigned from their regular shifts and units to help care for individuals with COVID-19 and others,” she said. “Hospitals are managing by daily patient-load balancing, transferring patients within their system, or to other hospitals where capacity exists, as well as to our field hospitals.”

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Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, lauded the Baker administration for its efforts to protect the state’s health care system in a statement.

“As COVID-19 admissions continue to rise, hospitals are doing everything in their power to create additional capacity and keep up with care demand,” Walsh said. “The measures announced by the Baker administration today will help ensure that they can maintain a fully flexible workforce, maintain beds for the sickest patients, and keep services open that are crucial to long-term health.”

The state, Walsh said, has previously witnessed the “negative consequences” of the health care system becoming overburdened.

“At this pivotal crossroad, we urge individuals to follow key safety guidelines to stop the spread of this virus, which protect our caregivers and save lives,” Walsh said.

Earlier Wednesday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh told reporters the spike of new COVID-19 cases in Boston was the largest single-day tally since the springtime, underscoring the need for continued vigilance as vaccinations continue.

Walsh, speaking during his regular briefing at Faneuil Hall, told reporters that Boston saw 643 new cases Wednesday and five deaths.

That means city residents, he said, must continue taking precautions against the virus.

“We need everyone to continue to do your part,” the mayor said. “We can’t say it and I can’t say it enough. The majority of us have not been vaccinated yet. Wearing a mask, physical [and] social distancing, washing hands, avoiding gatherings, getting tested all remain essential to preventing the spread of this virus.”

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Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.