Baker: Let's limit plans for holiday gatherings

As Thanksgiving approaches, state officials this week reiterated their calls for people to gather with only their household members around the table, pitching a small-scale celebration as a sacrifice that will help ensure many holidays to come with safe and healthy loved ones.

Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel said she’s “very worried that Thanksgiving could lead to many super-spreader events, and Gov. Baker cautioned that, with case counts climbing and a field hospital under construction, Massachusetts residents «can›t afford to do Thanksgiving and the holidays the same way we›ve done it in years past.

A new #GetBackMass public awareness campaign aims to underscore the message that taking precautions like social distancing, mask-wearing, and getting tested is the best way to get back to the things people love – sporting events, concerts, dates, birthday parties and family activities, to name a few cited in the ads – sometime in the future.

While case numbers continue to climb nationally — and in Massachusetts, where 1,785 new cases were logged Monday — a recent string of promising trial results have raised hopes for a vaccine that could bring about an end to the pandemic. A Massachusetts High Technology Council presentation said testing will be key until a vaccination program is ready.

There are currently 40,202 active cases of Covid-19 in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Public Health, which reported 18 new deaths on Monday among confirmed coronavirus patients, bringing the pandemic’s death toll to 10,299, or 10,531 when the 232 deaths among people with probable cases are added in. More than 7.9 million tests have now been administered in Massachusetts, and the seven-day average positivity rate stands at 3.06 percent, or 4.82 percent when higher education-related tests are excluded.

“We are in the midst of a surge in cases, there is community transmission across the commonwealth, and we are standing up at least one field hospital to treat a crush of ill patients,” Baker said at a Monday press conference.

Massachusetts caps indoor gatherings at 10 people, and mandates that visitors from anywhere but Vermont and Hawaii, including returning college students and Bay Staters coming back from their own holiday trips, self-isolate for two weeks or test negative for the highly infectious virus.

Last week, the Department of Public Health removed New Hampshire and Maine from a list of lower-risk states exempt from that policy. The change could have major impacts on holiday travel, as those who may have planned trips to either of the two border states must now factor in quarantines or tests or else expose themselves, if caught not following the restrictions, to potential fines of $500 per day. 

Numbers from AAA and the US Transportation Security Administration indicate more people are traveling than has become the recent norm, but in numbers below pre-pandemic levels. AAA projections from Nov. 12 showed 50 million people expected to travel on Thanksgiving, down from 55 million in 2019.

The TSA screened 1,047,934 travelers throughout the country on Sunday, less than half the 2,321,546 recorded the same weekday last year. Sunday marked only the third time since March that the total number of travelers had exceeded one million, along with Fri., Nov. 20, and Sun., Oct. 18.

Baker said the fact that TSA numbers are lower than they’d normally be pre-Thanksgiving “implies that the message that’s been delivered by folks like us and by many others across the country has clearly resonated with many people,” and said he hopes those who do travel take precautions like wearing masks.

The Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association circulated a letter on Monday, signed by nearly 100 chief medical officers and chief nursing officers from across the state, urging people to think carefully about Thanksgiving by keeping gatherings small, setting up meal tables to allow for distance, celebrating outside when possible, and staying mindful of seniors and those with chronic conditions.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have often been asked how people can support our caregivers as they combat Covid-19 with compassion and bravery,” they wrote. “Wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings is the greatest gift you can give.”

Baker has said he’s limiting his Thanksgiving festivities to his immediate family, and Bharel said her family made the decision to have everyone celebrate in their own households, in lieu of a tradition that involves people from ages 5 to 82 traveling to Massachusetts from six different states.