Charlie Baker announces new gathering and restaurant rules amid COVID-19 uptick

The Massachusetts governor also said that the second step of Phase 3 of the state's reopening plan is indefinitely postponed.

With most businesses open and the number of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts ticking up, Gov. Charlie Baker says that, in some ways, residents have to work harder than ever to prevent the spread of the disease.

“This uptick in cases and reports of people not adhering to guidance we have put forth here in Massachusetts means we cannot move forward at this time, or any time soon in the near future,” the Republican governor said. T

On that note, Baker also announced Friday that the administration was updating its restaurant guidance to clarify that alcohol can only be served if “accompanied by food prepared on site.”

“Bars are closed in Massachusetts,” he said. “And bars masquerading as restaurants also need to be closed.”

The move comes after Baker said some places were serving pretzels and potato chips to meet the food service requirement, which he said went against the spirit and intent of the reopening rules.

“You need to be serving food that’s prepared on site, and the people who are in your venue need to order and eat food if they’re going to order a drink,” the governor said.

In conjunction with the other announcements, Baker said Friday that officials will work to ramp up enforcement of the new and existing rules.

First, the administration is giving state and local police the enforcement authority. Previously, local health and inspection officials had been tasked with enforcing the rules, which impeded action when witnesses tried to report violations to police, according to Baker.

“Part of the reason the locals didn’t do anything is because they didn’t have any authority to do anything,” he said

Under the governor’s order, police will now be able to fine event hosts up to $500 for each violation.

Baker also announced a statewide COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team that will work to make sure residents are following the rules and coordinate mitigation efforts in communities where COVID-19 appears to be on the rise, based on the number of new cases and the percentage of positive tests.

The cross-agency team will particularly focus on making sure businesses are following the state’s sector-specific guidelines. Restaurants could also have their liquor licenses suspended or canceled for violations.

However, the team will also engage in public awareness campaigns, help municipalities access federal relief funds, and even restrict or shut down local parks, playgrounds, businesses, or other spaces believed to be contributing to COVID-19 spread in higher-risk communities.

Pressed on why he wasn’t taking more aggressive action — such as rolling back the reopening plan to ban indoor dining and other higher-risk, close-contact activities — Baker acknowledged that there were “some issues with bars and restaurants.” However, he suggested the new clarifications were sufficient and that large private gatherings were a bigger problem, based on the contact tracing data.

“The biggest issue we have is people who are familiar with people being familiar with them — in big groups — and that translating into spread,” he said.