Time to hit the brakes?

In order to safely reopen our schools, we may need to hit the brakes on our phased reopening of the economy in Massachusetts. The latest numbers are telling us that we may need to reclose some businesses or find other ways to reduce infection.

As we manage the reopening of the economy, we need to think more clearly about the trade-offs we are making and the consequences we are willing to accept.  The decision to open optional services like casinos, movie theaters, and health clubs may make it impossible for us to safely reopen our schools.

There is some guesswork in estimating how each specific business closure or infection control measure will affect the average rate at which people with COVID-19 transmit it to others. That transmission rate is referred to by the letter R. It is not possible to reliably estimate the R that will result from a particular level of economic opening.

But there is no guesswork in the consequences of different R values. If R is greater than one, then the epidemic will expand.  If it is less than one the epidemic will wane.  When COVID-19 was initially expanding, R was between two and three and the positive test count was doubling every few days.  By late April, the shut down had spread people out and reduced transmission opportunities, driving R below one.   As a consequence, the daily new case count began to drop and is now a tenth of what it was at the peak.

Yet, about a month ago, as a result of additional social transmission from reopening, R rose back to roughly 1.  Each infected person is now infecting roughly one other person.  We know this because the new case count has stopped dropping.  Over the last month, it has been fluctuating in the low hundreds (well above the levels in early March when alarms first went off).  Most recently, the new case count appears to be drifting up, even though the volume of testing has remained steady.

The fact that case counts are not dropping suggests that what we are doing now is just barely keeping a lid on the epidemic and that if we open up much more, R will rise above one and the epidemic will start growing again.  For all the imprecision about particular measures, the leveling off of the case count is sending a clear message:  We open further at our peril.

Yet we plan to open further.  We plan to receive thousands of college students back into the state, especially in the Boston and Northampton areas.  And we hope to at least partially reopen our elementary and secondary schools.  While safety precautions will help control transmission, it seems a stretch to imagine that transmission among students and from students into the community will not push our infection rate up substantially. 

Ideally, as we prepare for the fall and the added transmission that school opening (and generally increased contacts indoors as the weather changes) will bring, we would still be seeing falling case rates suggesting that our R value was below one.  That would tell us that we might have the capacity to add some additional social contacts without pushing our R above one.  But that is not where we are.  Currently we are embarking on the third phase of the Governor’s four phase reopening plan and R is already creeping above one.  

Moving back from Phase III to Phase II would mean closing casinos, fitness centers, health clubs, movie theaters, and museums. It would also mean delaying the arrival of college and university students on campus. Alternatively, maybe we should revisit elements of Phase II that may be contributing more to infection than some elements of Phase III.

Our elementary and secondary schools should be a high priority — for children and for working parents. We should demonstrate that we can get them functioning without driving our total transmission rate above one and then we should open less essential businesses and bring students back to our universities.

Massachusetts has done a good job in shutting down the economy to bend the rapidly rising COVID-19 curve, building up the health care system to avoid care shortages, and defining clear safety rules for each kind of business and institution as they reopen. But the numbers are now sending a message: We may be setting ourselves up for trouble in the fall. We could be on the cusp of making the same mistake that other states have made.

Each choice to reopen a category of business adds to the transmission rate. Let’s face up now to the fact that our transmission rate is creeping above one and reassess our plans. We need to make choices about what businesses and institutions should stay open in a way that reflects community priorities and acknowledges that there are trade-offs — we can only reopen so much of the economy without risking catastrophic resurgence of the disease.

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Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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169 Comments

  1. If we put health and safety first, which, in the long term, is also putting the economy and everything else first, we should just listen to the numbers. It’s clear that the continued reopening of our economy has flattened the curve in the wrong direction, halting progress since basically mid-June.

    If we want to reopen schools we need to make different choices now. In addition to your list of movie theaters, casinos and gyms, we should probably also stop indoor dining.

    1. Aaron’s said it well. Putting health and safety first does put the economy first, and indoor dining should be added to the list of things to stop now.

      Somerville seems to have the right idea. It’s re-opening more slowly than the rest of the state — it’s still in phase 2.

      1. Except for baseball because the Mayor coaches and wants his team to play. You shouldn’t be picking and choosing.

    2. Agreed & indoor dining during summer months when we can expand to dine outdoors still is pushing it.

  2. I’m quite concerned about this also and support getting the state ready for back-to-school as the driving priority, not only for kids and families but also for the economy.

  3. Hit the brakes! Baker said we’d roll back Phases as needed, based on the data. And the data is concerning.

  4. I suspect that a lot of us were afraid that would happen. Especially since apparently we are still in the ‘first wave’ of the pandemic, not the second, and since flu season is coming too. Some questions which might be relevant are:
    are there treatment options available now which were not available during the first couple of months which might mitigate some of the increase in cases;
    should there somehow be emphasis on vulnerable populations staying sheltered in place rather than on major shutdowns (I’m in one of those populations myself);
    and I know this sounds horrible, but at what R do hospital facilities become stressed and what R might be seen as a tolerable increase especially if there are better treatment options?
    There is also the factor of increased ability to do reliable tests to detect asymptomatic “carriers”, and some determination of whether/how much immunity is conveyed by having been diagnosed and recovered. I won’t go into the idea of “herd immunity”.

    1. I have been seeking herd immunity. Only wear a mask to gain entrance to a place I want to go, e.g., Casino. I have COPD/Emphasima and wear Oxygen and glasses. I do not wear a mask on top of that. Been out and about everyday and hoping for the herd immunity since very, very few people die after being sick with ANY FORM OF VIRUS. Media keeps everyone scared and stretching this out up ’til election to blame Trump for it. AND, Dr. Fauci stems to gain big time financially in Big Pharma when all is said and done.
      You want to look like a 3rd world country immigrant, you are free to. I am an American and FREE TO CHOSE.

      1. My understanding of what it means to be recovered is incomplete, because very few states have defined what it means. Without the CDC and WHO, no one is defining it and the data is being collected haphazardly if at all making the analyses much more difficult. Also, I had a healthy, athletic 66 year old friend recently taken off of a ventilator after 30+ days of Covid-19. He needed new lungs. Unfortunately, he won’t be needing them anymore. If you don’t care about your own health, please, choose to care about your neighbors and friends. You are indeed an American and FREE TO CHOOSE to care about others, too.

        1. As for ventilators, I (@85)have made up my mind to avoid being intubated, and will take my chances on other available thereapies. Wish me good luck!!! That line, “….he needed new lungs…” is a classic.

      2. You may seek herd immunity, but you will not get it any time soon, not until there is a widely available vaccine. I don’t know if you understand the amount of infection — and cost, and disability, and death — that this would require, because if you did I think you would recognize that this idea is horrifying and intolerable.

        Herd immunity in Massachusetts implies roughly 4 million cases (2/3 of 6 million people). If we assume we only see 10% of actual cases, then 400,000 confirmed cases. At our current rate of 200 cases per day, that will take five and a half years. Among confirmed cases, in Massachusetts, we have a mortality rate of about 8%, implying 32,000 deaths (this remains true in July, comparing to cases 3 weeks earlier). This bug also causes various disabilities in more people than it kills (heart, lungs, kidneys, testes, is what I have read), and of course the hospital care, survive or not, is costly.

        Most people reject this, so though you may be seeking herd immunity, it’s not going to happen either for a very long time, or until there is a vaccine. Almost nobody else is cooperating with your herd immunity plan, not least because we dread the risk. You might want to look for a plan B. Most of the rest of us are wearing masks, because what good research we can find, suggests that it helps a lot, and it seems to be what helps other countries keep their case and death rates far below ours. I like to think of myself as looking like a socially responsible citizen of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, or Japan — not 3rd world countries at all.

        The virus doesn’t “care” about profits, politics, or anything like that. If it can spread, it spreads, and often enough it disables or kills. That’s all that matters. Finding someone else to blame for its existence doesn’t make it go away — only denying it the chance to spread will do that. So, please wear a mask whenever you’re out in public.

        1. David Chase, thank you. Very good stuff there. Sadly, we have too small of a percentage of folks that will dive that deeply and cogently into most any subject. Most especially one as complex as this/these. In fact, we should all be on alert to anyone offering simple solutions to complex problems, because they are most assuredly charlatans and/or morons.

          Let’s all keep in mind, Covid-19 is of the virus family known as Coronas. Did everyone get their MERS and SARS vaccines last year? How about the AIDS vaccine? No? Why not? It’s been 40 years? No vaccine exists for any coronavirus. How we keep hearing talk of a Covid vaccine being available next year is, in my opinion, negligently irresponsible. Our new normal may be what we have now and that’s that. So, please test, trace, track, test, isolate, test, stay home, test, keep your distance, test, avoid socializing, test, avoid all contact with others, test, and wear masks! We know that this stuff works! Well, it does for those committed to each other and willing to do the work to get it done.

          So, schools and livelihoods:
          Follow all of the above. For those that can’t, make reasonable accommodations.

          Mandate that employers allow working remotely, if they can’t, mandate they allow parents to bring children to work so that the children can attend school remotely. For those that can’t, allow limited occupancy in the schools with written proof from the parent’s employer.

          For those jobless, hire them to disinfect schools, buses, mbta etc. Hire them to test, trace, and track. Train, certify and hire folks to conduct small group after school activities. Hire folks to deliver school meals. Hire folks to on Virus-Safety detail at malls and stores and entrances to keep surfaces clean and keep mask compliance. Train and hire air/HVAC technicians to upgrade, install and maintain HEPA/UV air cleaners in every indoor commercial and public building.

          It sounds hard, right?
          … What did JFKennedy ask of this country? “We endeavor to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

          1. Um.. I’m not going back into a school that was full of kids during a pandemic. I’m not going to even teach small #’s of kids after school. This is a not a good idea. I am a teacher who will not be teaching this year. I’m afraid to send my kids to school, and am not keen on them going back. Even before the pandemic when I taught full time, I would get some kind of nasty cold or flu every year, at least once. This thing, Covid 19 is ruthless, and you can lose your life. Until there’s a vaccine, I will sit out this “war” thank you!

      3. Ignoring the fact that you are hoping to catch and spread a virus that has killed over 140,000 Americans, you do realize there is evidence that people can catch Covid-19 more than once, and the second or third times are worse than the first? It is not like chicken pox. Walking around hoping to get sick is not going to produce herd immunity.

        1. Actually, today’s NYT has an article showing it is very unlikely to catch Covid19 a second time. Sorry I couldn’t get a link to paste. But more likely was that a mild case later turned into a bad case after a month or two.
          Yes, I agree we should tighten and focus on getting students back to school. For that we need to keep R well below 1.

      4. hi Gordon- you could try a face shield, that would not interfere with your oxygen and glasses. I trust the numbers and I trust Tony Fauci, who has been at this a long time. Please be courteous and wear a face covering when asked to do so. It’s just common sense.

      5. Hi Gordon — We are a long long way from herd immunity. The estimates for the percentage of the population in Massachusetts who have been exposed is only about 10% and I think we’d need something like 70% to approach herd immunity. I don’t know why you think very few people die, given the number of deaths we’ve seen here in Massachusetts. You are lucky to live in a place where most people think very differently from you and have taken precautions. You are being protected by “herd intelligence.”

      6. Respectfully, please stop watching Fox News and listening to Rush and Tucker. Now’s the time for real information, data, and science–not partisan infotainment and propaganda.

  5. Super concerned about re-opening. It is definitely too soon for what we already have re-opened, much less for bringing thousands of people back together under the same roof in schools. I know teachers who are thinking they will quit if they are forced back to school. I have friends with children who are terrified about sending their kids (and also having the uncertainty of it).

    Additionally, with so many people traveling into the state, there is no way to control the spread that they bring to us if we don’t have greater lockdowns in place. If they don’t have anywhere to go, they won’t come here and infect the rest of us.

    At a bare minimum, there need to be much higher consequences for not wearing masks and we need to keep restrictions on gatherings–with the reopening, people are becoming lax. I’ve seen a number of parties in my neighborhood (Belmont) since the 4th with 30-50 people at them, none of them wearing masks.

    We can eventually recover economic losses over time. We can’t raise the dead. It’s mind-blowing to me that people care so little about the lives of the other people in their communities that this is even a question at all.

    1. thanks for bringing up masks- I agree there is little if any enforcement of wearing/ not wearing masks. Few wear them on public sidewalks or driving cars with open windows and I thought a sneeze or spit with virus will carry ten feet

    2. Excellent points. It’s time to stop fooling ourselves that hosting parties and defiantly refusing to wear masks in stores merit only a sad look and a head shake. Please explain to me how these actions are not bioterrorism and why they should continue to be indulged. We can make enforcement easy. Video a house party, include the street number, make sure an excessive number of occupants are visible, then email the video to an officer who can blandly mail a $1500 fine.

  6. It’s unfortunate that if more people were to follow the simple public health guidelines we know to be effective this could be largely contained.
    How do we get more people to buy in? More stringent regulations? More enforcement? Additional messaging to reach more people? There are limits and risks to such measures for sure. But we have a good understanding of what actions people need to take to contain this and a sense that not enough people are doing these things. How do we bridge this gap?
    I think the most up-to-date science, public health guidelines and knowledge of in what settings transmission is most likely/frequent have to be the sources of decision-making. I think we need more information about the risks of and to be more careful with indoor activities. I would support a roll back from Phase III to Phase II if it’s believed this would be likely to get this under control.
    But it would be disappointing because at this time I think the biggest factor is individual people’s behavior. Theoretically, if everybody wore masks and kept a safe distance from others, we would have this largely under control and wouldn’t need to scale back reopening.
    Wear a mask, physical distance, wash your hands and in return we have our health, an economy, and a greater sense of normalcy.

    1. “How do we bridge this gap?”
      I think a big part missing in the gap is paying people to stay home. A lot of unnecessary activity and transmission is happening because people are forced to go to work to perform non-essential activities, because they can’t survive otherwise.

    2. Chris, I agree with your focus on reinforcing known behavior that helps contain spread and thus reduce the probability of driving up the R that Will explained.

      Those on this thread may be experiencing something different, but there are still too many people not wearing masks. I live near an entrance to the Esplanade, and I can tell you, given how serious all of this is, there is not an appropriate level of compliance.

      Our political leaders have properly asserted how important it is to wear a mask, but we need either to reinforce or further encourage that behavior, whether that is done by having the police offer masks to those without them, imposing fines, or restricting access to areas where non-compliance is likely.

      We are in a limbo between recommending the right behavior and ensuring it, and this is an important lever we can pull, along with the options that Will articulated.

  7. This is certainly the prudent course of action, despite the pain experienced by nearly all of us, some much more than others. What we should be concentrating on are the ways we can support the least able among us to pay bills, put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads while we wait out this catastrophe. This is not a time for selfishness, but a time to recognize our collective interconnectedness and do the right thing.

    1. This is the only way. A virus that might not kill you may not sound so bad compared to starving, homelessness, and more. And the businesses that are being discussed for re-closure are not really places of high wage earners.

  8. Agree and support a step back. Hot spot Brockton reports highest weekly increase since June matter of time for other places.

  9. Agree with a step back on casinos, movie theaters and gyms.
    Everyone please wear masks and practice good hygiene – our kids need to get back to school! Let’s not close down all our businesses!!

    1. I favor prioritizing k-12 opening including using large spaces like gyms, churches, community centers to spread out class spaces and closing indoor activities like casinos,…
      The resurgence is a concern, I agree.

  10. We in Massachusetts have done well to flatten the curve. We know from other states that a resurgence of the virus happens when restrictions are lifted. It is not clear to me
    why colleges and universities cannot continue to teach by remote access. My daughter who teaches at the University of Hartford did that successfully and feels students got full access to the information. I would hate to see a resurgence of the pandemic, and agree with you, Senator Brownsberger, on all your points. Thanks for your leadership.

    1. Have you ever read a credible argument that reopening colleges will NOT lead to a devastating spike? Close indoor proximity, global student body, immature ego control, drugs, alcohol, sex—college is tailor made to spread pandemics.

  11. The virus is mutating and becoming MORE infectious. Time to return to Phase II!
    Thanks also for being rational.

  12. I would feel safest if we slowed the opening even though I very much miss everyone I used to see in all my favorite places. I see many people not wearing masks, and many cars from out of state, some from states doing okay, others from states not doing well. I hope though that there will be some extra money from somewhere besides what’s been available up to now in order to help those businesses survive if they have to wait longer to open, or have to shut down again. If we can keep them afloat I think in the end their longterm security will be better– when we’re keeping virus numbers down. The money would of course decrease the terrible anxiety we know they’re going through as well. Maybe we could have more public service announcements asking people to support with a few dollars their favorite businesses that have to be shuttered again. What my husband and I have been trying to do is spend some money in local small businesses whenever we can, and leaving big tips at coffee shops, etc. One coffee shop we love that has not reopened at all has a go-fund-me site to help its baristas survive, and we’ll be giving something to that shop. We can’t do too much of that since my husband’s work hours have been cut in half and he’s the only earner right now. But we’re grateful to have any work at all.

    As for schools, I can’t bear to think of even one child, teacher, custodian, or cafeteria worker getting sick due to schools opening too early, and it’s another reason to wait though I know how hard that is in so many ways. Another point about that is how often I hear about teachers hurriedly writing their wills in some states where they’re feeling forced to open. How can you teach if you’re feeling pretty sure you might die in the process? That’s so very tragic.

    We have to keep in mind too that there’s still no national plan to get PPE to all the places that are about to run out. My sister in law is a hospital chaplain in the Boston area and a few months ago was desperate for PPE for her colleagues. We had some wrapped N-95 masks left over from a project here and sent them, and the hospital was very grateful. It seemed as if eventually the hospital got more PPE and was okay for some time, but we could end up with a shortage again if the numbers start to increase fast enough. That of course puts all patients, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and others in grave danger and adds to the caseload. Sadly, the last I heard, we still can’t depend on the national goverment to supply enough PPE for all who need it.

  13. On Sunday we arrived on Martha’s Vineyard for 2 weeks to escape our high rise Boston apartment building which had a case and has not been enforcing rules including mask wearing. We were shocked to see crowded parking lots and large clusters of people at the beach, embracing their friends, not wearing masks. I lost my job due to COVID yet fully support rolling back. We do not have children and while I understand their need for in-person learning and socialization, I think the entire nation needs to go back to phase 1 and mandate mask wearing. We have the playbook on what works from Asia and Europe, let’s use it.

  14. Thank you for explaining what is going on, and a way to measure this. The R value seems dependent upon not keeping social distancing especially. Why not allow affected businesses to open day or at night, thereby lowering the concentration of crowds or people. Maybe alternate Saturdays or Sundays. Include some of the Phase 2, or 3 but at different times. If we spread social distancing to 24 hours instead of just 12 hours, we could saves our businesses while having more space. This would give us all a lower R value while saving our economy, at the same time. More hours but less people.

    1. I fear that reducing the number of hours
      would increase the number of people
      pressing for access at these times. Al-
      though they could be required to control
      access, as supermarkets do, to ensure social distancing, doing so within a hours li-
      item time frame, would I think put them
      in an impossible situation. Wouldn’t it be
      better to limit access to require social dis-
      tanning and deny permission to businesses, such as bars, which logistically can not
      control social distancing.

      1. Businesses that are struggling financially can barely afford to keep the minimal staff they have with shortened hours. Very few would be able to support the payroll of being open for these types of hours.

  15. Why not allow affected businesses to open day or at night, thereby lowering the concentration of crowds or people. Maybe alternate Saturdays or Sundays. Include some of the Phase 2, or 3 but at different times. If we spread social distancing to 24 hours instead of just 12 hours, we could saves our businesses while having more space. This would give us all a lower R value while saving our economy, at the same time. More hours but less people.

  16. Glad that the consensus agrees with Sen. Brownsberger’s own recommendation. Casinos, gyms and bars may have some political pull, but they are not as essential to the long-term health of the economy as such sectors as pharma, high-tech and start-ups — let alone the importance of safe school reopening.

  17. The general input seems to favor putting on the brakes. I believe that we have to be flexible and adjust to the realities. If the R indicator doesn’t go down, then we have to select the most likely cause and modify. The state and local governments have shown superb leadership. Keep it up so we can survive! Thanks for what you do.

  18. Yes, we have to do something. If we don’t, there is no question that the reopening of colleges and schools in August is going to cause a surge in infections and deaths. This is not acceptable.

  19. Thanks for the well reasoned and fact based update.

    I completely agree with the prioritization of schools over some of the Phase III options and if necessary Phase II options. Please keep up the great work actually solving problems using facts and scientific reasoning rather than simple dogma and ideology.

  20. Agree. I would also add that a phased reopening of schools would be a good idea. Let’s get the highest need kids in first and practice routines and/or make physical changes that are needed. We will learn a lot quickly without putting kids and faculty/staff at undue risk. Then get the next group of kids in. We should measure success by how many days kids spend in school total this year, not how quickly we can shove them in the buildings or how long we go before we have to close schools again. Thanks for this post and for the interesting comments.

  21. I agree, we should go back to Phase 2. Many of us don’t feel ready to go to restaurants, movies, etc, anyway. My children are grown, but even if they weren’t, I’d put off opening schools until we have a vaccine. If that’s not feasible, I’d open schools for older children, not preschool, where it’s really hard to enforce social distancing and wearing masks.

  22. Shouldn’t we be looking at the positive test rates and hospitalization counts? While the Transmission rate has fluctuated the positive test rate and the hospitalization counts have continued to trend downwards even with re-openings. I don’t think comparing to early March is as much a concern either as we had almost no testing capacity then vs what we have now. The real focus right now should be on more aggressive testing in communities with higher positive test rates and more general testing at places such as dentist offices and even encouraging employers to randomly test employees.

    If the positive test rate begins to trend more and more upwards than I think we should consider pausing or rolling back re opening. Transmission rate can be a useful metric but I feel like positive test rate is a much better indicator.

    Also there is no mention of contact tracing. Don’t we have significantly more contact tracing in place now than in March and doing a much better job with this then a few months ago?

    1. What the positive test rates tell us is that we are doing a lot of testing and that is good. Enough testing to have good view of what is happening. But the testing is basically a constant over the past 30 days and the cases numbers are steady, so that suggests R at 1.

      I do think the hospitalization count is also an important indicator and but hospitalization count lags new case count — people don’t need hospitalization right away and often stay for a while. The last 14 days of new hospitalizations have been roughly flat, consistent with the new case count being roughly flat for the last 30 days, assuming a two week lag. The stories told by new hospitalizations and new cases seem consistent — R is roughly 1.

      1. 1) Since it takes longer now to get test results than it has in the past, is that getting weighted into the positivity reporting so that we can accurately make policy decisions based on a 3-day trend? 2) Can MA go forward investing, producing & using the $1/day antigen test (see @MichaelMina_lab) ahead of the (head in the sand) feds? 3) With primary driver of infections being the 40% asymptomatic, college-age the least-adherent to social distancing & mask-wearing, and colleges acting independently on decisions re: testing, in-person vs online etc – seems we are heading into a storm without the right plan & gear.

  23. How about access to testing? As I understand it, the state is not using all of the tests we have available. My partner and I have gotten some insight into why as we have tried to book tests for asymptomatic people: unclear policies for testing asymptomatic people; rules that change weekly; hard to get the necessary referral; and the kicker – looping phone calls around hospital registration departments once we got the appointments. A five-minute test will have cost us 6 hours on the phone, time for our doctor to refer, time for all the appointment bookers, time for the registration clerks, …. Massachusetts might have the testing capacity we need. The bottleneck is getting it out there. It is sad that we may need to start re-shuttering businesses because we have the testing but we can`t get out of our own way to use it. I am grateful for the state`s efforts to expand access to tests and very much appreciate that we can even get the asymptomatic tests with reasonably prompt results (thanks, Will and other legislators). But wouldn`t it cost less overall to make testing free for everyone than to support an economy that can`t run because the tests we do have are sitting on the shelf?

    1. The state is doing a lot to push testing, including free testing in communities of need. It’s happening in a decentralized way though so the results are uneven. But overall, I think the main problem is lack of people coming in. Nationally, something like 10% of people with the disease ever get diagnosed.

      1. Thank you for the explanation. Particularly as it seems that we aren`t set up to wrestle the virus to ground via testing and tracing, I have to say that I agree that it is time to roll back some of the reopening. New York has been just a little bit more cautious than Massachusetts and it is making that difference which we need; might we take a cue from them on what to open/leave closed? I also agree with the discussion below regarding the importance of more information about what situations are leading to clusters of cases, if indeed cases are clustered. We should know enough by now (or very soon) to target closures in a way that will let us open schools.

  24. Thank you, Senator Brownsberger –
    Yes, above all, let us follow the science and the data, and respond accordingly.
    Our students, teachers, support staff, and
    communities deserve no less, as do we all.

  25. Yes, let’s pump the breaks.

    But with respect, Mr. Brownsberger, it strikes as a bit tin–eared that in a message about the reopening of schools, you mention ‘economy’ four times, ‘movie theaters’ twice and ‘teachers/’school personnel ZERO times.

    Clearly we agree that it is necessary to open up schools. We agree that it is a worthy cause worth some sacrifice. But I suspect we disagree on the reasons for reopening. To my mind, the only worthy rationale for endangering the health of school employees is at the altar of the physical and social-emotional health of children. Nothing else justifies the risk, especially (as you mention) given the current >1 R naught numbers. It is inevitable that schools will spread COVID-19, and it is inevitable that the first infections will disproportionately impact the adults in those buildings. Let’s make sure that risks we’re asking educators to assume is for an immediately human cause, not an abstracted economic one.

    For the reason of the (potentially) high human cost of reopening, it is also important that we prioritize the schools serving our neediest populations, and the students who will be most impacted by in-person classes. We should prioritize support to kindergartners, special education programs, and Title I districts WELL BEFORE we spread reopening wealthier towns; we should reopen state schools before Croesus-rich universities. So yes, let’s pump the breaks on everything – and develop phased school reopening plans that looks at our classrooms as places to foster our childrens’ welfare AND protect the adults that work with them.

    1. To my mind, the only worthy rationale for endangering the health of school employees is at the altar of the physical and social-emotional health of children.

      I definitely agree and I take your point that I did not touch on the important issue of teacher health.

  26. I said it before that we should wait to reopen the schools until there are no more covid cases for a month and then wait another three months as a margin of safety.

    At that time, someone responded that my suggestion was crazy.

    1. Michael, I agree with you 100%. Not only are we endangering the school teachers, employees, but the community in which the school resides. I cannot imagine how the school will be able to keep the students 6 feet apart and then wearing masks at all times. Also, how about the safe use of bathrooms at the school?

  27. Close the indoor bars. Close the theaters and casinos. Reopening schools — especially elementary schools — is crucial to the learning of the children who have already missed almost four months of in-person education. They should be our priority

    1. We have to decide what our priorities are. Schools or bars/cinemas/gyms? I would choose opening the schools and, therefore, I would close the bars, cinemas, and gyms. The next problem is that the schools don’t have the funds to transport children to schools in mostly empty buses or to put up see-through barriers to protect the students. What about the teaching staff and administrators? Can we keep them safe, too? Next, Covid-19 testing? Get in line and then wait a week or more for test results? That’s not going to do it. This is a complicated problem because there are so many moving parts. I think we have no choice but to step back, insist on masks and physical distancing, and find the funds to set up the school for safe learning and teaching.

    2. This isn’t just about what’s best for the children, this is about the safety of the people who have to educate them. Reopening the schools means forcing educators back to work. Can we reasonably ensure their safety? Can the State/Cities/Towns provide testing of students and faculty at a level that will protect transmission? Does the state have enough facilities to provide social distancing to reduce the possibility of the spread of infection? If schools can’t afford books, pencils, and other supplies, and I can’t imagine that they can afford hand sanitizer, N-95 masks, and COVID-19 tests on top of that. It’s unsafe and unfair to declare teachers essential workers and force them back into over-crowded classrooms if you can’t reasonably protect them at least to the same level that CVS protects their pharmacists.

  28. I strongly encourage the state to strengthen enforcement of mask wearing, especially on the MBTA. I’ve been disappointed by how many riders I find either not wearing masks or using them as chin guards. Being an enclosed area with often poor ventilation we need to do better. The MBTA is too critical for the region’s economy. Universal mask wearing can lower R enough to allow us to stay in Phase III.

  29. We should slow down now. If we allow the virus to get back to April levels, the Fall will be a disaster. And sadly, the math is not looking good: high R0 equals expanding caseload. We should also consider how to handle the flights into Logan from hotspots all over the country. Do we test or trace? We do not want all of the sacrifice thus far to have been wasted.

  30. I agree with everything our Senator said: back to Phase II. I say this despite our losses in the arts, particularly music (which he doesn’t mention), especially as a performing musician and club goer. I would like to see support for the arts & artists via initiatives such as http://www.nitolive.org. And more checks to everyone from the government. There’s plenty of money on the planet…going to all the wrong things!

  31. I couldn’t agree with you more. I am a sole proprietor in MA and have just submitted paperwork to homeschool. I have no idea how this is supposed to work but my business remains virtual and my child will remain home.

  32. Well I have a different view than most. I do think we need to open our schools and with safeguards. There is a risk to our kids education, social needs and the economic needs of parents by staying shut. I believe with mask use, pool testing, 3 foot separation and masks and face shields for teachers and staff we can find a way to open our schools. I think most are not in a rush to go to indoor restaurants nor to movie theaters. While one death is not acceptable, most deaths are sadly are among the elderly and those with pre existing conditions. Those who are at high risk will have to stay home and have home schooling and remote learning. There is risk and benefit for all and I do feel school opening with safeguards is worth the risk.

  33. Step back, close the bars, gyms, and places with crowds. Enforce social distancing on beaches and outdoor gatherings. Make people understand that by wearing a mask they are helping themselves too, not just others. Time to slow down, and make the virus impact much less before we comfortably can move forward. Lives are at stake. Let’s stop and be patient.

  34. A singular focus on the number of cases and deaths from a single disease is irrational and neglects more important general measures of well-being. Since there is no cure for COVID, the goal was initially to keep the number of cases from overwhelming the health care system. That goal was met. The longer the continuing shutdown of normal activities, the greater the adverse affects on people. For example, the unemployed die at rates 2% or more than normal. Thus 200,000 additional unemployed Massachusetts citizens will mean 4,000 added deaths. The fallout from the lockdown produces strains on physical and mental health that are not accounted for by focusing on an uptick in the number of cases of COVID. This virus is not a deadly as others in our history and the unprecented quarantine of the population is devastating businesses, including hospitals, and wreaking havoc with our daily lives. We should move more quickly to bring activities back to normal, including, but not limited to, getting kids back in school.

    1. Your comment may make sense. But what are your safety priorities? Schools or bars/gyms/movie theaters? Where does one find the funds for making the schools and transportation safe? In Massachusetts, shall we mandate masks and physical distancing and have it enforced with fines? And then once the schools are open, when the children leave school, with Covid-19 (not terribly sick and perhaps completely asymptomatic), to their retired after school family members, what then? Won’t the employed parents need to replace their children’s afternoon babysitters and miss work or how will that work?
      I’m wondering whether we shouldn’t be organizing educational pods while this is being worked out. Retirees might be able to tutor 3 (a small number) children until they can return to public school buildings safely with teachers, administrators, and staff also adequately protected. It would take some organizing, but if we really want to see our children educated, it could work. (And, yes, I realize that retirees are in a high risk group due to their age, so this is yet another thing to consider.) My point is that perhaps we need to start thinking non-linearly to support making good decisions.

    2. Absolutely agree. Of course there may be some small uptick in cases as places reopen and more tests are done. We always knew that would happen. Focusing on one disease with a high survival rate at the expense of everything else, including mental and physical health, is not good policy. I do not support rolling back what little we have open.

  35. If the plan is to keep strugglingworkers out of work longer so you can put kids back in schools, I hope you’re fighting for the HEROES Act to pass. We are struggling right now! My income has been cut in more than half! I saw signs at yesterday’s rally saying people are looking at $160 a week of this Act doesn’t pass. You didn’t mention at all how you were going to deal with the unemployed if holding off on reopening is the plan in this article; Nothing about the looming housing crisis. You didn’t mention any plans for what to do if the HEROES Act doesn’t pass in its entirety. The idea of dealing with those problems when they arise is undiscerning. At least think about it. At least mention it.

      1. Hello Will – I just want to point out that the phrase “housing crisis” in this context is a little misleading. Everyone thinks that “housing crisis” means shortage of housing (and developers love to use that as an argument to build dense projects). At this point, we do not have a housing crisis in that sense — because our economy is not expanding and won’t for a while. We have a “personal income crisis” that building more housing is not going to cure. People not being able to work and pay for, or maintain their homes is a disaster in waiting – and a domino effect that will affect earners and investors in many parts of the economy. We cannot be cavalier about it. Realistically, this problem cannot be fixed with public handouts given to private citizens, I’m sure you realize that.

        People need to be able to work and be responsible for their bills. Any extended period of time when people are not making money will cripple many folks ability to maintain their living standards, to retire — not to mention affording their homes. This will lead to general impoverishment of the population. We cannot allow it. We need to find a way to keep the economy going.

        In war, people all over the world have always been making sacrifices for the good of their countries. This is a similar situation. I’m sure that if Biden wins the election, this argument will prevail, but democrats don’t want to make it now for obvious reasons. It’s disappointing to see this harmful partisanship on display.

        1. “Realistically, this problem cannot be fixed with public handouts given to private citizens, I’m sure you realize that.”

          Does he? I don’t.

          In fact, though it’s inaccurate to call it a public handout since people pay into it, unemployment insurance, extended and enhanced seems a great way of getting through this (at least one of Paul Krugman’s articles pointed this out). Where people fall through the cracks other kinds of welfare payments seem to me to be indicated.

          I’ve compared notes with my mom in Nova Scotia. It’s not exactly comparable, that’s fair. If you drew a graph of travel in and out of regions,Nova Scotia is no doubt much less connected than Massachusetts, so it’s initial hit naturally wasn’t as severe. But still, they did have cases and got R well below 1, so that their school reopening plans aren’t so difficult as ours (though, given their seemingly strong risk aversion I’m not so sure the approach is any more aggressive).

          Part of Canada’s success vs. the U.S. is attributed to their feds greater willingness to take extra debt and send money to individuals to avoid pressure on them to work (temporarily). U.S. has certainly done some of that, and with some success, but not as much, possibly with a good bit of corruption and mislaid funds, and it seems a fight all the way.

          In normal times you can argue about social welfare programs and UI, but when the pressure to get back to work acts in opposition to measures to control community spread, I’d suggest it’s time to put right wing ideology on furlough.

          1. It’s not a “right wing ideology” – it’s common sense and basic understanding of economics, which unfortunately most people lack. The unemployment insurance funds are exhausted, or will be very soon. Giving hundreds of thousands or millions of people money for staying at home and doing nothing that has any monetary value is not going to fly. The state cannot borrow money without mortgaging our future. And the country cannot be “robbing Paul to pay Peter” (i.e. shortchanging other needs), or just printing money, and not pay a huge price with its currency losing value, foreign imports becoming expensive to us — and that’s just a beginning of many negative consequences of drastically reduced productivity. People are fooling themselves if they think we won’t pay a very high price for suspending our economy.

        2. I have to disagree with you about the housing crisis. There are not enough homes in the area – there are more people who want to purchase than there are affordable homes. This is basic supply and demand and has driven up prices, especially in the city and surrounding areas.

          1. You wrote: “There are not enough homes in the area – there are more people who want to purchase than there are affordable homes. ”
            Sure, there are, and there will always be more people who can’t afford prevailing home prices in Eastern Mass. The region cannot accommodate everyone who wants to live here. Additionally, the supply of housing can’t go up if people don’t have incomes that make new construction housing economically feasible for builders/developers to deliver — with the cost of land, materials and labor what they are around here.

  36. Let’s face it no one talks about the protests ! Which would be making a difference in the up tick about now, why keep blaming the reopening! I was very up set to see all those people in crowds yet no one allowed together in a restaurant, it just does not make sense, not one peep from the media about the protests that could be the problem for the cases rising . You can’t say it’s ok to be in a crowd of thousands yet you can’t go to a restaurant ! No common sense !

    1. As I understand it, people have been looking at this quite carefully. Outdoors vs indoors makes a big difference. The protests were outdoors, and people mainly wore masks. They did a lot of free testing for people who went to protests. They don’t seem to have driven a spike in infections.

    2. G, having attended the protests, I saw high mask compliance, and distancing, coupled with the drastic reduction in transmission outdoors. Spikes from protests would have happened weeks ago and did not. Also, protesting is a constitutional rights while indoor dining and casinos are not.

  37. I can’t help but wonder that if our public health rules — wearing masks, maintaining distance, quarantining people from high-risk places — were rigorously enforced we could avoid stepping back into Phase II and start to open up schools for children in the lower grades (as it appears that children under ten are rarely infected and rarely infect others).

    1. Yes, let’s make it mandatory to wear masks and to maintain distance as much as possible.
      I heard, yesterday, that it is unclear whether younger children are less infectious than older children. It seems probable that the younger children are usually with their parents and don’t act as vectors, but they are just as able to infect others when out and about. There are no data on this matter. They may be just as infectious to a teacher who is in close proximity to her/his young students and if the teacher is at higher risk of dying from Covid-19, that teacher shouldn’t be put back into a classroom.
      The data keep coming in and if the CDC and WHO were tapped for their expertise we might do a better job of collecting and analyzing the data and then of opening up the schools and businesses.
      And as sad as this is, I think we must protest, too, but there is no reason why the protesters shouldn’t wear masks and march 6 feet from one another. They need not stand shoulder to shoulder without wearing masks.

  38. Yes, we need to hit the brakes. If we act now we can avoid greater problems later. Let’s be smart about this.

  39. Will,

    I think what has been missing from the reporting of the daily numbers of cases is the context in which people were likely to be infected. What types of profiles do the positives cases fall into?
    – Essential and retail workers with front line jobs exposing them to many customers daily?
    – People still very cautious and only going to grocery stores and visiting retail environments only to get essentials?
    – People visiting retail and closed indoor spaces in the past 14 days?
    – People visiting restaurants, bars, gyms in the past 14 days?
    – Family members of those that have engaged in higher risk exposures?
    – And do these people regularly wear masks in those higher risk environments?

    Getting and then distributing this data would help inform the public of higher and lower risk environments and allow government officials to tailor closings of businesses that are linked to higher spreading of the virus.

    I truly believe the way to minimize the affect on the public and promote as healthy a population as possible is through science and communication.

    1. I agree that this information is essential if those who are reluctant to comply are to be persuaded. If the information is not
      provided people will act based on their own speculations. Is the information not being collected or are “privacy concerns”
      preventing it from being shared?

      1. Thanks, Will. Are people analyzing data from the contact tracers? It seems like it might be more helpful than overall testing data in terms of figuring out what we might close and what can stay open. Also, it would be good to publicize research on whether protests drove infections or not.

    2. Hear, hear. Recent coverage of Germany’s successes focused on data-driven decision-making backed by high profile science communications. We’re not doing enough of either.

      For example, black population infection rate and mortality rate both seem to be higher. We still don’t know why this is and whether it has a biological basis. But if this is driving the spike, there needs to be targeted and effective communications to affected communities to take extra precautions, find resources, etc.

      1. Seems unlikely to have a biological basis since race is a social construct. People with darker skin and African features comprise a great deal of genetic diversity, such that when you see a trend like that it’s pretty obvious it’s based on historical/economic situation, the need to do essential jobs, etc. See the book Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini (in case it’s unclear from the title she’s exposing bogus “race science” and not suggesting one “race” is superior).

    3. Exactly last time it was nursing homes, now ages 20 to 29 which tells me it’s from protesting and going in crowds like you’re invincible!

  40. What communal benefits accrue from casinos, fitness centers, health clubs, movie theaters, and museums which can outweigh the communal costs of infections rising beyond R=1? Schools represent a less obvious answer, but what incremental benefit of learning in school rather than remotely can offset the communal cost of additional infections?

  41. Very thoughtful article. It is time to reassess. You should have mentioned though that Massachusetts unemployment rate in June climbed to 17.4%, the highest in the country.

  42. Thank you, Will, for your rational leadership on this. I agree with you on every point. I would like to see what you’ve written on the editorial page of The Globe.

  43. I don’t quite understand why re-closing some businesses has to mean closing all of the businesses that opened in phase 3; it strikes me there ought to be room to incorporate new knowledge about how this disease spreads if we do begin closing businesses again. For instance, we now know that masks are probably the most effective way to prevent spread of COVID, so why would we re-close all casinos, fitness centers, health clubs, movie theaters, and museums when many of these places can be visited and enjoyed while fully masked? It strikes me that any retrenchment in our reopening ought to focus on closing the highest-risk spaces (indoor dining, movie concessions), not just those places designated as phase 3 businesses during the original reopening planning.

    1. I think part of the problem is not just the quantity of mask wearing, but the quality. Some people use masks with exhale valves — those defeat the main purpose of the mask, which is to prevent unknowing asymptomatic people from spreading the disease. Other people wear their masks “nose free or die”. Not all masks seal around the edges; recently in a grocery store, I saw someone with a mask so loose that from the side I could see daylight between the mask and their face.

      And exercising hard in a mask, is hard. Many masks aren’t stiff enough to resist the force of a hard inhale, especially after they are damp from heavy breathing, and they collapse down onto your mouth, forcing all the air that you inhale to come through a much smaller area. (I have a home-made mask that looks like a bird beak that is better for this, but before that, biking up hill was awful).

      1. I implore you to watch this video. It covers something that has the potential to be a real game changer that may affect our decisions now as well as in the future. Apparently there is and has been a dirt -cheap at-home test that delivers results in 10 minutes. It was dismissed by the FDA out of hand because it has a 50% failure rate—but only recently have we understood those failures are not random at all. The rest does miss the long tail when a recovered patient has minute amounts of non infectious RNA remnants in their blood, but is actually highly accurate when the viral load is high. Which turns out to be when the virus is most transmissible. Being able to screen students at home or customers at a business would be economically revolutionary. You’re not the FFA of course but there is an opportunity to investigate and advocate here. https://youtu.be/h7Sv_pS8MgQ

  44. Thank you for this post, Will. I join the majority in wanting to control R, protect people, and prioritize education safely. Bars, gyms, casinos, and indoor dining are not absolutely essential in light of our present reality.

  45. Will, as far as business goes this is already a death knell for business!
    Shutting business down again will be that for sure!
    Gov Baker put a hook in all businesses that were allowed to open, putting
    Restrictions to hinder their ability to open!!!

    You have a constituency that tends to go along with you.
    Safety of course is important especially with schools.
    Why are you coming out of the woods with this idea?
    Have’t heard this before.
    Wait and see, do not rush it!
    John

    Closing business again will
    Be a disaster!
    So many of them have no
    Reserves to rely on and are wondering how they will make it!
    Closing them now is a bad idea.

    1. The question maybe dial back now or dial back later. If we let the epidemic expand, that will croak even more businesses.

      But I agree that the judgment call is very hard and we have to keep looking at as much data as possible.

  46. Thank you Senator.
    I agree — caution and data. I like your suggestion that may be some Phase II and/or Phase III activities need be curtailed.
    This keys me to this idea: could it be possible to review each type of business for the anticipated risk, and rank the types of businesses into Phases. Not sure this was done “on data” initially.
    The risk should simply be the expected density of people, # interactions, or other measure of people-mingling — this is what drives infection transmission.
    Thank you — caution and deliberate, based on data and R expected…

  47. Thanks, Will, for speaking out about this. It seems like we’ve all (not just in MA, but in the northeast more generally) been patting ourselves on the back a little too hard and somewhat prematurely. Just today the NYT published an article about what a wonderful job we’ve been doing. R in Middlesex is at 1.12, according to covidactnow.org, up from a low of 0.77 in early June. In addition, if we are interested in enhancing the economy, it’s worth keeping in mind the potential economic cost of having to close schools this fall because we were overly enthusiastic about opening things up now.

  48. Hello,
    This is a very lucid explanation of how to gauge the status of the virus spread. Question: Is there an R for each main industry or social sector, or one for the whole state? I can imagine to keep the bars closed but open the schools to keep the overall R below one.

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