CHATHAM — Based on an increase of seven cases of COVID-19, state officials have designated Chatham a “higher risk community” and marked it red on its pandemic map. Officials say while the news underscores the importance of stemming the spread of the coronavirus, the designation is related, in part, to the town’s small population size.
Acting on the previous two weeks’ case data, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health added Chatham to the red list last Wednesday evening, because its daily case rate exceeded eight cases per 100,000 residents. The figures are based on 2010 census figures, which reflect the town’s year-round population of around 6,000. Expressed in cases per 100,000 residents, Chatham’s rate for the past two weeks was 8.5.
Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the new red designation is another opportunity to remind people about the need to wear masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing, but in a town with a small census population, “it doesn’t take a lot of cases” to move into the state-designated red category. On Monday, Duncanson said that only one of the seven new cases was linked to the Chatham Squire cluster.
Duncanson said Thursday that the seven people connected with the Chatham Squire cluster involved staff members or their close contacts who had attended a business-related gathering – not a party or social gathering – in a nearby town, though it is not known whether the virus was spread at the gathering. Two of those cases represented Chatham residents; the others were from Harwich and Yarmouth. A single employee at Chatham Bars Inn, an Eastham resident, tested positive, and one employee of the Red Nun tested positive late last month. All three restaurants have complied with state protocols and have since reopened.
It’s the second cluster event in the town; the first was linked to a party on July 12 and resulted in 13 positive cases. Many of those at that party were restaurant workers.
State Senator Julian Cyr, D–Truro, said Chatham’s actual case rate is likely lower than 8.5, given that the town’s population swells well beyond 6,000 in the summertime. And because the case rates remain low in surrounding towns – 2.8 in Harwich, 0.7 in Brewster and 1.3 in Orleans – Chatham’s figure likely reflects an isolated incident.
“We stand ready to offer whatever resources the state has available to the town,” State Rep. Sarah Peake, D–Provincetown, said. State officials are taking the data seriously, but are encouraged that the cluster appears to be isolated and there is no evidence of community spread in Chatham. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, “we will let science and data drive decisions, not rumor and innuendo,” she said.
Peake said that the state education commissioner has met with Monomoy Regional Schools Superintendent Scott Carpenter and concluded that there is no connection between the COVID-19 cases and the school system, nor should it impact the district’s reopening plans. Under state guidance, school committees use a three-week rolling average of case counts when deciding whether to hold in-person classes or remote learning. Based on that figure, “there is absolutely no need to take any further action at this time,” Peake said. The Monomoy District begins in-person and hybrid classes on Monday.
The COVID map is one tool for schools to use when planning classes, Carpenter wrote in an email to parents Thursday morning.
“Given the small size of our communities, it doesn’t take many cases to move one of our towns into the ‘red zone.’ The most important metric that immediately will influence our response is whether a staff member or student who has been in our schools tests positive or whether there is evidence of community spread behind the shading in the state’s map,” he wrote. “At present, neither has happened, and Monomoy will begin in-person learning on Monday (barring any new information).”
“Our board shares our community’s concern” about the new cases, selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said. The town has made extensive efforts to remind people about COVID-19 safety protocols, and staff have been in regular communication with restaurants to ensure their compliance with the rules.
“We’re really all about safety here,” Davis said.
Though town officials have been contacted by restaurant customers who were concerned about catching the virus, that risk is extremely low, Duncanson said. Public health officials define a “close contact” where transmission is possible as a person who has spent 15 minutes or more within six feet of an infected person, and most restaurant patrons wouldn’t meet that standard.
“Simply sitting in a restaurant enjoying your meal outdoors on a bright sunny day, where you may interact with a server for a few minutes and somebody else brings your meal out” doesn’t qualify as a close contact, he said. In such a case, the likelihood of virus transmission “is extremely low. Extremely low,” Duncanson said.
The town is doing all it can to keep the risk of COVID-19 transmission as low as possible, he added.
“Wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, but continue to go about your routine, understanding that everybody from restaurants to retail stores to government to the public health sector is doing everything we possibly can to keep this risk as low as possible for folks,” he said. “We really want people to continue to come and enjoy the Cape and enjoy Chatham.”
This article has been revised to include new information, including the fact that a small increase in COVID-19 cases -- mostly not connected with local restaurants -- resulted in the new state designation.