– Citing concerns over metro region case numbers, State contact tracing weaknesses, and risk of new surge, Somerville postpones Phase 3 by at least another two weeks
SOMERVILLE, MA – Somerville’s planned Phase 3 Step 1 business reopening is now on hold until at least Monday, August 3, as local officials grow increasingly concerned about potential impacts amid rising new case averages in the metro area and growing concerns about the efficacy of the State’s contact tracing program. Prior State guidelines limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 persons will also remain in effect until at least August 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,” said Mayor Joe Curtatone. “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. We all know how small confirmed case increases can quickly become exponential with this virus, so we want to, at a minimum, see new 7-day and 14-day rolling averages ideally decreasing but holding steady at a minimum and evidence of promised contact tracing improvements before we take this next step. We are holding Somerville to a higher, safer standard.”
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.”
“To reopen we must have either steady or downward case trends locally and regionally — not just statewide. We must also have all of 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,” said Doug Kress, Director of Health and Human Services.
Contact tracing is necessary to quickly identify COVID-19 flare-ups and stop further spread. Like some other municipalities, Somerville has developed local contract tracing capacity to fill gaps left by the State. Somerville’s 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.
“Our hope is that the 7- and 14-day averages over the next two weeks will show that cases are trending down. Our hope is that promised improvements to State contact tracing efforts will be effective. But if the situation does not improve over the next two weeks, we’ll be glad we delayed,” said Curtatone. “What we do now will determine how safely we can reopen schools in the fall, whether businesses that struggled to reopen can avoid costly reclosures, and how many people get sick and how many die. These are serious times and we must take every step with the caution it deserves.”