Massachusetts is calling for a curfew to curb rising COVID-19 infections. Experts say it's probably not enough.
BOSTON – Starting Friday night, Massachusetts residents will be breaking the law if they're out between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., unless on the way to or from work or school.
The curfew is the latest effort to stem the growing COVID-19 outbreak in Massachusetts, which was hard-hit in the spring but experienced a low infection rate in the summer and early fall.
In the last week, the state, which had about 200 cases a day for most of the summer, has routinely seen daily caseloads above 1,200. And it's likely to get worse instead of better.
Across the country, the story is much the same, with skyrocketing COVID-19 caseloads.
Other places, including Puerto Rico, Hoboken, New Jersey, and the Netherlands in Europe, have tried curfews as well, hoping that if people are at home overnight, they won't pass on the virus to as many others. The move is aimed at closing restaurants and bars earlier in the night, before people lose their inhibitions and get careless about COVID-19 safeguards.
But it remains to be seen whether criminalizing such everyday activities as a late-night stroll is a good idea – or will have any effect on the virus case count.
William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said he's dubious curfews will do much to curb infections.
"Curtailing the evening for dining by an hour or so isn't likely to make a very large impact," Hanage said. "I can't think of a single place where further action was not necessary."
He concedes a curfew may cut down on alcohol-induced bad decisions but he worries that people kicked out of bars and restaurants at 9:30 p.m. will congregate in small, airless apartments, where the risk of infection will be even in higher.
Instead, he believes restaurants should be limited to outdoor dining and takeout, and bars need to be closed completely – with financial support so they'll be around to reopen when the virus is finally under control.
Michael Levy, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said curfews and many other recent efforts to rein in the spread of COVID-19 are just baby steps toward what really has to happen: a lockdown.
"We just need to call it something else, but that's what we need to do," he said. "What worked before was reducing contact with other people, and it worked really well."
No one other measure will be effective, he said, though a curfew might be useful if it reduces the number of people in an indoor space.
"Everything that helps people stop coming into contact with other people is critical right now," Levy said. "We need to put our foot back on the brakes."
Jennifer Weuve, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health, called curfews a "blunt instrument." It would be better to be more targeted, she said, limiting risky activities like indoor restaurant dining, where people are in close quarters and not wearing masks.
Curfews just add to public confusion about what is potentially dangerous behavior and what isn't, she said.
Dining outdoors at 10 p.m. isn't riskier than at 7 p.m., but eating in a crowded restaurant is dicey no matter what time of day, Weuve said.
"It's a very confusing environment and I think that we could do better by being more transparent about what we know about where risks lie," Weuve said. "Indoors, especially without a mask (as in a restaurant or bar) is a high-risk scenario."
Still, Weuve and Hanage praised Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker for taking some action rather than pretending the virus will go away on its own.
"He is responsive, even if I don't agree with all the things he's done," Hanage said.
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