BOSTON — Strict rules for visitors to Massachusetts are aimed at preventing a resurgence of the coronavirus, but critics say new restrictions will be hard to enforce and don't fully protect the state.
Beginning Friday, travelers to the Bay State could be fined $500 per day if they refuse to comply with an executive order issued by Gov. Charlie Baker requiring them to quarantine for 14 days to control the spread of the virus.
Visitors from low-risk New England states — as well as New York, New Jersey and Hawaii — are exempted from the restrictions. People with a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours prior to arriving would also be exempt from the new rules.
"Every traveler coming to Massachusetts, no matter where they are from, has a responsibility to keep COVID-19 out of the commonwealth," Baker said Tuesday. The rules also apply to Massachusetts residents returning to the state.
Some say the restrictions are government overreach that will stifle commerce and restrict freedom, while doing little to prevent a resurgence of the virus.
"Aside from the civil liberty issues it raises, this plan is unworkable on many fronts," said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank. "In the middle of a pandemic, are we really going to have state police knocking on doors and pulling over visitors to check on them?"
Stergios said enforcing the restrictions will require a new bureaucracy that will divert manpower and resources away the state's pandemic response.
"We should be focusing on expanding testing," he said. "We're still only testing about 15,000 people a day, which isn't where we need to be."
He noted that the blanket restrictions apply to travelers from a number of states that, overall, have lower positive COVID-19 test rates than Massachusetts.
"We're restricting travel from places like Montana and Wyoming, which have much lower rates," he said. "There's no science behind it."
On Beacon Hill, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Rep. Marcos Devers, D-Lawrence, filed a proposal this week to roll back the new travel restrictions.
"It's an unworkable executive order," said Rep. Peter Durant, R-Spencer, the bill's primary sponsor. "But even more concerning to me it is a drastic overreach of constitutional protections."
Meanwhile, the state's medical community wants Baker to toughen travel restrictions and slow down reopening to stave off a second wave of infections.
This week the state saw its average positive test rate climb to 1.9 % after holding steady at 1.7 % for more than a week, according to the Department of Public Health. One month ago, the positive test rate was 2.0% — which is still a huge decline from 9.6% in mid-May.
Baker attributes the recent uptick to clusters on Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard linked to house parties and large gatherings.
“For the most part the people of Massachusetts have done the right things over the past couple months,” he told reporters at a Friday briefing. “But recently we’ve seen disturbing reports about people letting down their guard, not wearing face coverings, not socially distancing, and giving the virus the opening it relentlessly seeks to spread.”
He warned that the state could tighten restrictions on public gatherings even further if more clusters are linked to irresponsible behavior.
Dr. David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, told reporters earlier this week that the rising numbers of infections should be a "wake up call" and suggested the state consider "backing down a phase" in reopening.
Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert at Boston University's School of Public Health, said a major concern with the new restrictions is that the state isn’t requiring a second COVID-19 test.
"The problem with that is that you might get a negative test result but go to a party the night before arriving in the state and get infected,” he said. "Even when the test is done, you could still be incubating from a previous exposure.”
Travelers and residents returning to the state must fill out a form that includes contact information, so health officials can follow up with them if needed.
Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center, said another concern is whether the state will be able to effectively monitor visitors to ensure compliance.
"How will it be enforced and who will enforce it?" he said. "And is there any plan to find those people to ensure that they are truly staying in quarantine?"
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org