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Amherst Issues Emergency Health Order Amid UMass COVID-19 Outbreak

A sign upon entering Amherst, Massachusetts.
Hoang 'Leon' Nguyen
Masslive / Masslive.com

Updated at 5:44 p.m. 

The town of Amherst, Massachusetts, will keep in place capacity limits and a business curfew — both of which were set to loosen on Monday — as part of efforts to contain a COVID-19 outbreak at its flagship University of Massachusetts campus.

The Amherst Board of Health extended the 25% capacity ceiling and the 9:30 p.m. closing time for many industries indefinitely in an emergency order adopted on Sunday, the same day that UMass Amherst officials raised the university's risk level and shuttered in-person activities in the face of nearly 400 active cases.

"This is not the direction that we, as a Town, nor our businesses, want to go, but it is imperative that the Town take decisive action immediately to address this increase in cases," Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said in a statement.

UMass Amherst has been grappling with a surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases since it kicked off its spring semester one week ago.

Between Feb. 2 and Feb. 4, UMass reported 298 positive tests, bringing the current active caseload to 398, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy wrote in a message to the community on Sunday.

Contact tracing efforts at UMass Amherst have found that COVID-19 transmission has been "especially prevalent among some undergraduate students not following social distancing and mask protocols," Subbaswamy said.

Subbaswamy raised the school's risk level to "high" — just two days after he deemed it "elevated" — and imposed a range of sweeping restrictions on campus life.

For the foreseeable future, all UMass Amherst classes will take place remotely, and students in dormitories and off-campus housing are instructed not to leave their residences except for meals, COVID testing twice per week, and medical appointments. All athletic practices and competitions are canceled. Some activities, such as staffing campus testing and vaccination clinics, will be exempt.

UMass Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said while most students have been doing the right thing to limit the spread of the virus, some have not.

"We have taken action and sent a number of students into our student disciplinary process after determining through evidence that violations had occurred and, as needed, we will continue to do that," Blaguszewski said in an interview Monday.

Subbaswamy warned that violating the "self-sequestration" directions could result in disciplinary action such as removal from campus housing or suspension.

"To many of you these may seem like drastic measures, but faced with the surge in cases we are experiencing in our campus community, we have no choice but to take these steps," Subbaswamy wrote. "By acting aggressively now, we are confident we can contain this surge and more quickly return to normal operations, including a resumption of in-person classes and organized student activities."

The near-shutdown on campus will remain in place until at least Feb. 21, and officials will only lift it "if the public health situation improves significantly."

"Let this moment be a stark reminder to any of you who may have been cavalier about COVID-19 that your individual behavior has a profound impact on everyone in your community," Subbaswamy said. "If each of us follows proper protocols to help protect the community, we can get through this trying time sooner and stronger."

Gov. Charlie Baker was asked at a press conference Monday about the decision by UMass officials, which he called "very consistent with what other schools have done when they've been in the same place."

Baker said he doesn't know much about the situation in Amherst, but understands it mostly had to do with the freshman class. Baker said there is a clear generational difference between how older people and people in their twenties think about the coronavirus. He said that is why mandatory student testing is important.

"There's nothing like knowing every single week you're going to get tested to determine if you're positive or not, and that that will have some consequence with respect to where you can go and what you can do, to encourage kids to do what we might call the right thing on this stuff," Baker said.

The state-imposed ceiling on business capacity increased from 25% to 40% on Monday, and an order requiring many industries to close their doors by 9:30 p.m. also expired.

Baker announced the changes last week, citing positive trends in the overall COVID-19 outlook.

A spokesperson for the town of Amherst said the neighboring towns of Hadley and Sunderland are weighing their own extensions of business restrictions.

Sunderland Town Administrator Geoff Kravitz told the News Service that the topic will come up at a Monday night select board meeting, adding that he anticipates similar action to Amherst given the frequent interactions between residents of the three communities.

Campus officials are scheduled to provide an update at a 5:30 p.m. Amherst Town Council meeting on Monday.

The bulk of this report was written by Chris Lisinski from the State House News Service. It also includes reporting from NEPM's Alden Bourne and Sam Hudzik.

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