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Public health experts and some Boston-area mayors urge more action on COVID-19

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 12/6/2020 Shirley Leung
Dr. Ashish K. Jha standing in a room: Dr. Ashish Jha. © Lisa Abitbol/HGHI Dr. Ashish Jha.

Governor Charlie Baker is facing growing pressure from public health experts and local mayors for a stronger response to Massachusetts’ quickly rising wave of COVID-19 cases, with some municipal officials considering regional rollbacks of their own if the state doesn’t act.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, aired his frustration with the governor on Twitter Saturday night, writing that he used to think Baker was doing a good job controlling the virus but over the past six weeks has become “aghast at lack of action.” In an interview, Jha said he wants to see the state close more activities such as casinos and indoor dining.

“The longer you wait to act,” he added, “the more your hand is forced into lockdowns.”

Municipal leaders from about 30 cities and towns in Greater Boston have been engaged in an ongoing discussion on a collective local response to the swiftly worsening second wave of the virus, perhaps rolling back indoor dining, shutting gyms, and ordering closures of other businesses.

While similar discussions have taken place before, there is a new sense of urgency with COVID-19 cases hitting record levels. Other states, including California, Rhode Island, and New Mexico, have rolled out partial shutdowns in recent weeks, as have many countries in Europe. Municipal leaders in Massachusetts remain split on the best course of action, with some mayors open to broader rollbacks while others are reluctant to close any more businesses.

With cases rising, is Massachusetts avoiding a lockdown because it doesn’t have to, or can’t afford to?

The debate highlights the challenge local officials face with cases surging and money to support shuttered businesses and their employees languishing. Mayors could act on their own but they also know, in a patchwork place like Greater Boston, it’s quite easy to go out to eat in the next town over if restaurants in yours are closed. And that would do little to contain the virus.

“I feel very strongly that we need to at least consider a local rollback,” said Arlington town manager Adam Chapdelaine. “But I also know, from a practical point of view, it would only inflict pain on Arlington businesses and may not be that effective.”

Baker in press briefings has been consistent in his message: He is not currently planning any more restrictions. On Sunday, Tim Buckley, a senior aide to Baker, said that the governor took significant action last month, such as ordering restaurants and other businesses to close by 9:30 p.m. and urging people to stay home at night.

Baker says record-setting number of COVID-19 cases in state shows widespread community transmission

“There are no imminent new measures,” Buckley said, “but the administration has long said every option is on the table.”

On Sunday, the state reported that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts rose by 4,747. The death toll from confirmed cases increased by 48 to 10,763, the Department of Public Health reported.

Pressure continues to mount for the governor to do more. The White House Coronavirus Task Force, according to a briefing document obtained by ABC News, recently suggested that Massachusetts impose restrictions statewide, not just in high-risk areas.

Municipal leaders are not advocating for a full shutdown like the spring but more targeted restrictions, as well as more virus testing and aid to small businesses. They plan to draw up a menu of options for further discussion this week.

For Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, whose city has seen case numbers spike to record levels last week, it’s ever more clear something has to be done to bend the curve.

“If we keep doing the same things, you clearly aren’t going to get different results,” she said.

Framingham already has more restrictions than what the state mandates. Restaurants are not allowed to have bar seating. Basketball nets taken down in the spring were never put back up. But business closings, Spicer said, are best undertaken on a regional basis.

“I don’t think we could do it on our own,” she said. “I’m the mayor of Framingham. I am surrounded by seven other communities, mostly smaller towns.”

And every one of those towns has its own calculus, its own small business community to think of and its own vulnerable populations to protect.

Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee has also seen cases skyrocket to record levels last week and is wrestling with how best to respond.

“It isn’t easy,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it political paralysis. This is a Hobson’s choice.”

Still, McGee is in favor of what calls a “reasonable rollback,” one that is based on data and one that is done on a collective basis. He believes the state needs to lead on this effort.

“I don’t want to speak for the administration,” said McGee, a former state senator, but “we can’t make those kinds of decisions individually. ... It can’t be one community here, one community there.”

Indeed, some public health experts are criticizing even the way the state presents COVID-19 data with its color-coded system to indicate different levels of risk in cities and towns. Several weeks ago, the Baker administration changed the thresholds for the highest-risk category, in a way that put fewer communities in the red.

See how Massachusetts’ COVID-19 risk map has evolved week-by-week

“It is nothing more than a changing of the goal posts,” said Philip J. Landrigan, who directs Boston College’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good. “I know they talked about greater scientific accuracy, but I think it’s all about messaging, not about science.”

Buckley, though, said the new system is in line with federal and global standards. And some cities seem satisfied with the state guidelines in helping them determine whether to keep businesses open.

Chris Walker, a spokesman for Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch, said city officials there are watching case counts closely but also taking Baker’s lead, and using his map.

“I just don’t see [rollbacks] in the immediate term right now,” Walker said. “Yes, we’re on the upswing, but we’re still yellow. We wouldn’t entertain anything until we’re deep in the red.”

Other cities say they’re reluctant, too. In Boston, where the city as a whole is still in the yellow but some neighborhoods have much higher infection rates, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh described a broad shutdown last week as being “the last resort.”

For many, a big factor is the lack of additional financial support — from Washington or Beacon Hill — for the businesses they’d be ordering to close. Washington has yet to deliver a second stimulus, but some states including Rhode Island and New Mexico are offering extra aid to workers and businesses as governors implement temporary shutdowns there.

That’s something Massachusetts should consider as well, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which provides staff support for the coalition of 30 mayors and municipal leaders.

“Of course, Congress must pass a relief bill immediately,” Draisen said. “But the state could provide stopgap funding to small businesses and employees until federal money becomes available.”

Added Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, who co-chairs the coalition: “Massachusetts cannot wait for outside intervention. We need to act now with purpose.”

In the early days of the pandemic, some municipal leaders acted more swiftly than the state, closing schools and construction sites and issuing mask mandates. Now, mayors are once again trying to stay one step ahead.

“For us, it’s trying to understand how we can act strategically,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who co-chairs the coalition with Curtatone.

With vaccines on their way, “there’s a light we can see now at the end of the tunnel,” she added. “We’ve just got to get everyone to spring.”

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