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Experts Suggest That Gov. Baker Rethink Indoor Dining Guidelines as COVID-19 Infections Surge

New wastewater data suggests coronavirus infection rates are rising rapidly in the Bay State, and scientists are worried

Stock photograph of a male chef in a restaurant kitchen, walking behind shelves full of silver pots and pans Per Winbladh/Getty Images

Recent wastewater samples from the Deer Island Treatment Plant in Winthrop may have serious implications for indoor dining this fall and winter, especially as the cold weather continues its annual creep. COVID-19 is on the upswing in the Boston area, according to data released last week by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

The MWRA’s most recent weekly study indicates that levels of viral RNA found in the wastewater at the Deer Island Treatment Plant are at their highest since the pandemic’s initial surge in spring — and trending upward. Locals scientists are troubled by the findings.

“It’s super worrisome,” Boston University infectious diseases specialist Dr. Davidson Hamer told the Boston Herald. “I’m worried. A lot of us are nervous.”

“Every day, I stare at this wastewater data from Massachusetts and get more and more concerned,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, wrote on Twitter recently. “This is not about testing or cases. This is about how much infection there is in the community.”

In a different Twitter thread, Jha wrote that seven-day moving averages for daily new infections, hospitalizations, and daily deaths from COVID-19 infection were all up in Massachusetts (his claim is backed up by data that can be found here.) Jha blamed indoor gatherings — including indoor dining, which was recently expanded in Massachusetts — as well as disinformation and complacency for the uptick.

“[Gov. Charlie Baker] has been excellent on the pandemic,” wrote Jha, adding that “its [sic] time to redouble efforts to curtail spread,” while also suggesting that the state’s top lawmaker announce new restrictions on indoor gatherings, including indoor dining.

Gov. Baker lifted some restrictions on indoor dining in late September, permitting restaurants to increase the capacity of each table from six patrons to 10, as well as allowing them to utilize bar seating for dining purposes. Nightclubs and bars that do not serve food remain closed, and standing around a bar is still not permitted under the most recent guidelines.

Indoor dining guidelines within the city of Boston differ slightly from the rest of the state: Table capacities are still capped at six people.

“This is in line with the cautious approach that we’ve been taking on reopening all along, and it’s a response to conditions on the ground here in Boston — higher density, less space around restaurants and the COVID data that we’re watching very closely,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh when the state loosened its restrictions.

Massachusetts reported 1,128 new coronavirus cases on October 24, the highest number of newly-reported cases since May 16. Over the past week, average daily infections have skyrocketed to 986 cases per day, up 75 percent from the average just two weeks earlier.

Gov. Baker recently told reporters that officials in the state are “prepared to respond to this virus like never before” and told Bay Staters that they must continue to be vigilant “as we head into the ninth month of fighting this virus.”

Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, told the Boston Globe that he was frustrated that the state didn’t seem to have a clear plan as COVID-19 infections surge.

“He [Gov. Baker] hasn’t told us what his plan was. He’s confident that they can handle it, great. But what’s the plan?” Horsburgh said.

“It could be that we’re going to have to make modifications as we go into the winter,” Dr. Sam Scarpino, a Northeastern University epidemiologist, told the Globe. “And far as I can tell, we don’t have a clear plan for that being communicated from the state around what the triggers would be [and] what they would target first.”

Vigilance (as Gov. Baker put it) is important, of course, but the onus shouldn’t be on the individual to combat a global pandemic. Having a clear plan and communicating that plan to the public is crucial. That plan should include stricter restrictions on indoor gatherings, including at restaurants, according to local public health experts.

Ashish Jha Says Mass. Needs to ‘Pull Back’ on Indoor Dining as the State Heads in the ‘Wrong Direction’ with COVID-19 [B]
Boston-Area Sewage Data Shows Coronavirus ‘Spike,’ Highest Traces Since the Spring [BH]
Massachusetts Covid Map and Case Count [NYT]
Some COVID-19 Restaurant Restrictions Lift Today in Mass. Here’s a Look at What That Means [BG]
1,128 New COVID-19 Cases Confirmed in Massachusetts, 8 Additional Deaths [WCVB]
State Reports More Than 1,100 New Coronavirus Cases, Prompting Calls for a New State Plan [BG]
Baker Expects More Coronavirus Cases this Fall, Cites Growth of Incidents Among Young People [BG]