The city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts has rescinded a ban on indoor dining.
The November 12th order to halt table service in Pittsfield’s restaurants following an explosion of COVID-19 cases from October gatherings prompted outcry from business owners.
“My problem is that city of Pittsfield closed our indoor dining but nothing in Berkshire County was closed, so for all I know our citizens of Pittsfield are going elsewhere to eat," said Craig Benoit. "I mean, they’re going to Lenox, Lee, Lanesborough. And even worse than that, they’re going over to New York State and taking all our tax dollars and revenue.”
Benoit, who owns the Hot Dog Ranch on West Housatonic Street, called into the November 24th virtual city council meeting to express his concerns.
“I’ve had to lay off 22 employees,” he said.
Mayor Linda Tyer held a meeting with Benoit and other restaurant owners Tuesday, leading to a compromise: indoor dining will return but with a limit of six people per table – four below the statewide limit of 10.
“In the last few days we are seeing an uptick in cases once again, but these cases are primarily general community spread as well as the high number of cases we’re seeing in one of our long-term care facilities," said Pittsfield Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong.
The nursing and rehabilitation facility Hillcrest Commons, located on Valentine Road, has reported almost 130 residents and around 60 staff members with COVID as of Tuesday.
“The difference now as to when the board of health issued the emergency order in mid-November is that those cases were related to clusters that were associated with gatherings of restaurant workers at house parties and groups having indoor dining at a few restaurants," said Armstrong. "So although we are seeing the increase in cases in the last few days, we’re not seeing clusters, large clusters of cases like we were in mid-November.”
Mazzeo’s, Methuselah, and PortSmitt’s were identified as the venues for speader events in early November.
Armstrong says the new per table limits will prevent similar events from happening again, as will a statewide ban on indoor dining after 9:30 pm.
“We’re preventing situations where you have people coming from multiple households where there’s an increased exposure to more people in different households," she said. "So by capping that at 6, there’s a better control measure there for indoor dining.”
Armstrong says that Pittsfield’s move to ban indoor dining was always intended to be temporary. At the time, the decision set the city apart from the state.
“We do want to be consistent with the governor’s orders, and generally we are, but in this case we had to take a stronger measure because of the specific cluster activity that we saw,” said Armstrong.
The city’s decision to return to indoor dining came the same day as Massachusetts reported the highest one-day total for confirmed new COVID cases to date: 4,613. Around 226,000 cases have been reported in the state since the pandemic began, as well as almost 11,000 deaths.
“We did see a decrease in cases following the emergency order," said Armstrong. "So we feel that it was effective. And now the cases that we’re seeing, they seem to be related to families gathering within households. We’re seeing transmission occurring to family members within households, and we’re already seeing the uptick since the Thanksgiving Day holiday. So we’re going to continue to learn more as our nurses are doing the contact tracing over the next few days.”
Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, the county’s largest hospital, has seen 43 people hospitalized from COVID-19 in the last two weeks, accounting for almost a third of the total number of hospitalizations since March 1st.