In Coronavirus Fight, State OKs Crackdown On Private Parties

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

Baker Freezes Reopening Plan

Citing a surge in parties like the one in Chatham July 12 where at least 13 people may have contracted COVID-19, Gov. Charlie Baker Friday announced a freeze on the state’s economic reopening plan, new restrictions on public gatherings, and new enforcement of those rules at parties – even ones on private property.

“There have been many reports of pool parties, birthday parties, holiday parties, Fourth of July parties, all of which have been documented in great detail by our contact tracing teams,” Baker said. The parties have been shown to contribute to community spread of COVID-19 and to new clusters of the disease. “These parties are too big, too crowded, and people are simply not being responsible about face coverings, social distancing or any of the major metrics that we’ve put in place” to manage the spread of the illness, the governor said.

Effective Tuesday, the number of people allowed to gather together outdoors will be reduced from 100 to 50. Indoor gatherings remain capped at 25 people. People must maintain six feet of distance between one another and must wear face coverings. At private outdoor parties, face coverings are required for any gatherings of more than 10 people, unless they are family members. First-time violators face a $500 fine.

In a key development, state and local police will now have the authority to enforce the public health rules on private property, where they previously lacked jurisdiction. Local health officials have made it clear that this has been a clear limitation in responding to parties in Chatham and other area towns.

Deputy Chatham Police Chief Michael Anderson said his department has received guidance and is prepared to enforce the rules.

“We do not have to resort to fining people. But people need to know that it is now a viable option,” he said. And while police might be inclined to issue the first citation to the person who organized a party where COVID-19 precautions are being ignored, “if we are forced to issue a ticket, a ticket may be issued to any person present at an unlawful gathering,” Anderson said.

It is critical that people take steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 even at backyard gatherings, the governor said.

“Even if it’s your neighbors and your friends, if it’s a decent size group, wear face coverings, don’t share food, don’t share drinks, and take this stuff seriously,” Baker said. Police will primarily focus on education, but will issue tickets if violators refuse to comply, he said.

“We are not driving down the streets looking in people’s backyards,” Anderson said. But if officers on patrol see an egregious violation of the rules, or if they receive a complaint, they will investigate, he said.

In Chatham, the police department is experiencing far more complaints about house parties than they’ve received in recent years. But previously, people gathered in bars, restaurants and theaters to celebrate, and with those options less available, they are turning to private parties that start earlier in the day than ever before. Because they are happening earlier, those parties are more likely to irritate neighbors, who might otherwise have slept through them. About half of the complaints about parties are related to COVID-19 violations, and the other half are about noise, parking or more traditional complaints, Anderson said.

This week, the state will start providing key COVID-19 statistics at the town level. Based on one of those statistics, the number of cases per 100,000 residents, communities are issued a color code that assesses the risk of the pandemic spreading within that city or town. Four cities – Chelsea, Everett, Lynn and Revere – are all coded red to represent the highest risk. A number of other communities with moderate risk are coded yellow, and cities and towns that have fewer than four cases per 100,000 residents are listed in green; they include Falmouth and Barnstable. Those with the lowest number of cases, fewer than five in the last 14 days, are mapped in white. They include all other towns on Cape Cod, including Chatham, Harwich and Orleans.

In high and moderate risk communities, the state will deploy a “COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team” that includes members of various state agencies to coordinate better enforcement and public education. The goal, Baker said, is to increase awareness of the problem in those communities “and help people change their behavior.” The vast majority of people in Massachusetts are following the rules, he said.

“We cannot let the actions of some force all of us to move backwards,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said.

Baker announced that the economic reopening plan would be halted at its current stage, Step 2 of Phase 3, and that it would remain at this level indefinitely. He also made it clear that there would be increased enforcement of “bars masquerading as restaurants” that serve pretzels or potato chips in order to meet the standards that allowed them to reopen under the plan. Representatives of the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission will be represented on the enforcement team, and will be able to revoke licenses or issue hefty fines to violators.

Investigators from the ABCC recently filed a report alleging that The Port Restaurant and Bar in Harwich Port violated several standards under the state’s emergency COVID-19 regulations. The restaurant allegedly ceased providing food service while still serving alcohol, failed to intervene when patrons were not wearing masks, and failed to limit the number of people at some tables. The owners of the restaurant deny wrongdoing, and the report appears to be an internal communication, rather than a formal notice of violation.