UMass Amherst

Amherst Board of Health Issues Emergency Order Amid UMass COVID Outbreak

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

A sign outside the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, or UMass Amherst
NBC10 Boston, File

The town of Amherst 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.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst changed its fall reopening plan Thursday, less than three weeks before the start of the semester, announcing that students whose classwork is completely remote will no longer have the option of living on campus.

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, but 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 mutant coronavirus strain first identified in the United Kingdom remains at low levels in the United States but is doubling its reach approximately every 10 days, according to a study published by researchers on Sunday.

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."

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

Coronavirus cases are trending downwards and that means local businesses are able to let more customers inside.

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.

Copyright State House News Service
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