SOMERVILLE, MA — Reopening of Phase 3 Step 1 businesses in Somerville have been delayed until at least Monday, Aug. 3, as local officials say they are increasingly worried about rising new COVID-19 case averages in the metro area and the effectiveness of the state's contact tracing program.
Prior state guidelines limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 persons will remain in effect until at least Aug. 3 as well. In collaboration with area businesses, the city has developed provisional enhanced safety requirements and guidelines for Phase 3 businesses, but their reopening will be put on hold.
Businesses in the Phase 3 Step 1 reopening include large indoor venues and activities generally considered to be at high risk for viral spread such as movie theaters, gyms, cultural centers, performance venues and indoor gatherings.
Phase 3 Health and Human Services categories opened in Somerville according to statewide plans on July 6. Effective immediately, newly announced state guidelines for grocery stores, which now allow for an increase in customers from 40 to 50 percent of capacity and the reintroduction of reusable bags, are in place in Somerville, with a short grace period for stores to use up existing plastic bag stock.
"We are just as eager as our businesses to restart this part of our economy, but the last thing we want is to move so quickly that we risk the kind of deadly surge and damaging reclosures we’re seeing in states that opened too quickly," Mayor Joe Curtatone said in a statement. "While statewide case numbers have been holding fairly steady in Massachusetts as a whole, we're seeing new case numbers start to tick up modestly in metro area counties. Couple this with growing concerns over the adequacy of the state's contact tracing effort, which is essential to safe reopening, and the only prudent response is to press pause for the time being."
The 14-day rolling averages in four metro Boston counties are rising. The averages in Middlesex (rising from 42 to 48), Suffolk (from 33 to 39), Norfolk (from 20 to 29), and Bristol (from 22 to 28) counties have all shown modest upticks in new cases, according to the New York Times hotspot tracker as of July 16. Additionally, on July 10, the state opened additional testing locations in Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Marlborough, and New Bedford, citing that these communities "have continued to see a higher number of residents testing positive for COVID-19."
Contact tracing is necessary to quickly identify COVID-19 flare-ups and stop further spread, officials said. Somerville has developed local contract tracing capacity to fill gaps left by the state. Its capacity right now is sufficient for the current smaller caseloads, but a surge would stretch local resources. Thus, reliance on the state effort will be critical amid a surge.
"To reopen we must have either steady or downward case trends locally and regionally – not just statewide," Director of Health and Human Services Doug Kress said. "We must also have all the critical components for safe reopening in place. That's widespread easily accessible testing, effective contact tracing and tracking, and isolation support backed up by widespread compliance with requirements for face coverings, social distancing, hygiene, and business safety protocols. Massachusetts has made incredible progress over the last few months. We don’t want to undo that by pushing forward without every element in place."