CHATHAM — A week after state officials designated Chatham a “higher risk community” and marked it red on its pandemic map, a decline in the daily case rate has put the town back into the lowest-risk category. Now marked gray on the map, Chatham's case rate is now listed at 4.9 cases per 100,000 residents, down from 8.5. The new designation was released Wednesday as part of the state's weekly public health report.
Officials had argued that while stemming the spread of the coronavirus remains critical, the previous red designation was 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 on Sept. 9. Seven new COVID cases pushed the two-week average to 8.5, over the eight-case threshold for the red status. The figures are based on 2010 census figures, which reflect the town’s year-round population of 6,000.
Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said that while the state's rating system 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.
While seven people have tested positive as a result of a cluster of cases at the Chatham Squire, only one of those seven people is included in Chatham’s case numbers; the rest live in other towns. Duncanson said last week 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. The others cases 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 officials are taking the data seriously, but there was never any evidence of community spread in Chatham, State Rep. Sarah Peake, D–Provincetown, said last week. 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. The Monomoy district began in-person and hybrid classes on Monday.
On Monday, before the town's red status was returned to gray, selectmen hosted a virtual public forum to discuss the increase in COVID-19 cases and the state’s move to re-designate the town a higher-risk community. Duncanson said that the daily incident rate would have been low enough to keep the town in the lowest risk categories had the state not used a year-round population estimate of between 5,850 and 5,910.
“We all know that Chatham’s population is not 6,000 or 5,000 in the summertime,” he said. The town routinely reports its summer surge population as between 20,000 and 30,000. Given the false denominator in the state’s equation, the state department of public health “is not accurately portraying what’s happening in town,” Duncanson said.
Of the seven new cases reported between Aug. 23 and Sept. 5, which resulted in the state’s red designation for Chatham, only one was related to the Squire cluster. The others were unrelated, and one represented a Chatham student currently attending college in Central Massachusetts who is quarantining there, Duncanson said.
Even if they aren’t what pushed Chatham’s numbers into the red, COVID-19 cases related to restaurants were a prime concern of people who spoke at Monday’s forum and Tuesday’s meeting of selectmen. The board asked town counsel whether the town has the ability to enact stricter rules than those required by the state, to, for instance, require restaurants to test all employees if one worker tests positive.
Town Counsel Patrick Costello recommend that the town proceed carefully, given the lack of legal precedent. A number of businesses are currently challenging Gov. Charlie Baker’s executive orders related to the pandemic, claiming he overreached his legal authority in mandating closures and implementing certain rules.
Resident Elaine Gibbs urged the town to implement stricter controls on restaurants to ensure that another cluster of cases doesn’t happen.
“Governor Baker’s looking at us,” she said. If there is another outbreak in Chatham, he might order businesses to close again. “We cannot afford to allow that to happen,” Gibbs said.
Selectman Chairman Shareen Davis said if restaurants are required to test all employees before reopening after one worker tests positive, it might require the business to close if employees need to stay at home in self-isolation for 14 days. “That’s just something to consider,” she said.
Resident Carol Gordon said restaurants should be required to carry out such testing. “We all want the businesses to survive,” she said, but public health must be a priority. “That should be our main concern,” she said.
“I think we’ve got a problem in the restaurants,” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said. The town and restaurant owners should work together to improve safety and boost public confidence, particularly now when cooler weather makes outdoor dining less popular.
Selectmen asked the board of health to review the comments made at this week’s meetings and deliberate whether any stricter rules are warranted or possible. Health board Chairman John Beckley said he would lead such a discussion shortly.
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.”