Regardless of how they view their recent classification, leaders of Massachusetts municipalities designated as red – due to higher COVID-19 case rates – say that private parties and a troubling disregard for virus precautions among younger people are key culprits for their new, unenviable status.

In the wake of a new coronavirus risk ranking system unveiled by Gov. Charlie Baker last week, officials in hard-hit communities quickly implemented a range of responses, including stepped-up police enforcement of noise ordinances and social distancing rules, new corps of civilian “ambassadors” to gently remind those who are not complying with mask and distancing practices, and more public service announcements, signage, cable TV programming and other COVID-19 communications – some of it recalibrated to reach millennial audiences.

“The strong message is we really need to do this together,” said Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee. “We don’t want to be punitive. We want to do what we need to do to keep people safe.

“I think we’ve got to shake it up a little bit. How do we continue to spread the message in a way that’s fresh and new?”

Just after the Department of Public Health released coronavirus testing data on Aug. 11 indicating which communities are averaging eight or more daily cases per 100,000 people over the past 14 days – the benchmark for being coded red – leaders from Chelsea, Everett, Lynn and Revere joined a conference call with Gov. Baker and his team. Among the topics discussed, McGee said, was how to tweak public health communications to motivate not just younger audiences but a general population for whom months-old messages about masks and hand washing have become background noise.

“It’s not reflective of Lynn in particular,” he said. “Nationally, people are losing sight of what we need to do to make progress.”

Since the initial announcement, six more communities have been included in the state’s “red zone”: Granby (see related story, below), Holyoke, Hull, Lawrence, Saugus and Salem.

The designation had significant repercussions in Salem, which immediately switched gears to begin the school year with all remote classes instead of the originally planned in-classroom instruction for grades K-3.

Mayor Kimberley Driscoll said Salem’s Board of Health is looking at reinforcing rules to make clear that social distancing regulations apply to private homes and backyards, not just restaurants and public spaces. She noted that state rules prohibit gatherings of more than 25 people for indoor gatherings (up to eight people per 1,000 square feet) and no more than 50 people outdoors – maximums that most homes and backyards in the densely populated city probably can’t meet.

Driscoll is encouraging neighbors to report large parties to police, who will disperse attendees if necessary. In addition, the Salem Health Department, police and city park rangers will be issuing fines for failure to comply with the downtown area’s mandatory mask rules – up to $500 for a third offense. Newly hired Downtown Ambassadors began patrolling the mandatory mask zone last Friday to hand out masks and assist with public education efforts.

Driscoll said she has asked the state to help with additional signage, digital ads and other communications produced in multiple languages. She noted that while Latinx people comprise 19% of Salem’s population, they have accounted for 51% of COVID-19 cases since July 1. People under age 40 accounted for 40% of cases in that period, she said.

In Revere, the under-40 statistic is even more profound, accounting for 67% of positive coronavirus cases, according to Mayor Brian Arrigo.

“That’s a big number and a number that has trended in the wrong direction,” he said, noting that new COVID-19 messaging will focus on the under-40 demographic.

Revere Beach – a regional draw, with its boardwalk of eateries – has intensified the challenge during a summer that’s been as consistently hot and humid as many can recall.

“If you’re coming to Revere to enjoy the beach, think of other people in the community and be thoughtful,” Arrigo said.

Following the governor’s call with “red zone” leaders last week, he said, “One thing we know will be happening is additional support through the State Police and the ABCC [Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission] for more enforcement around restaurants and other gathering spots.”

Like Salem, Revere is also deploying city workers, in the form of municipal park staff, to create a bigger presence in parks and playgrounds, “gently reminding people what they should be doing, and documenting” social distancing violations, said Arrigo, who has also asked young summer park workers to help create social media content that will resonate with “the under-40 group.”

Arrigo said Revere is also exploring creation of an ambassador corps to reach out to Latino, North African, and other ethnic communities that “we know through data are spiking” and may need targeted outreach about protocols and resources.

Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera took quick action when his city landed in the second batch of “red” communities. He called on police to ticket hosts of large parties for noise, mask and capacity violations; rolled back food service hours (including food trucks) to 10 p.m., and announced new measures to enforce post-travel quarantines. Rivera said the city will obtain Massachusetts travel forms filled out by residents and conduct door-to-door follow-up. Failure to comply with state-mandated post-travel quarantine orders may result in fines of $500 per day.

“If the spread is so profound that kids can’t be in classrooms, then we must act swiftly and intentionally to combat coronavirus in our community,” he said, noting that 75% of the last 100 Lawrence residents who tested positive could trace infections to one of three reasons: attendance at large gatherings or parties, travel to states outside the governor’s designated “safe zone,” or contact with someone who had engaged in one of those two activities.

Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria had issued an executive order making face coverings in all public places mandatory, with fines up to $300 per violation, the day before the state moved Everett from the yellow to the red category.

“I am hopeful this will decrease our numbers,” DeMaria said.

While thanking the Baker-Polito administration for assistance in fighting the pandemic in Everett, DeMaria also expressed frustration that Census data upon which the DPH bases its municipal color-coding “was compiled 10 years ago and may not reflect the undocumented population throughout the community.”

“We have a working-class community and an abundance of multi-generational living arrangements,” he said.

Chelsea has been a COVID-19 hot spot for months, but having dropped from more than 70 cases per day at the height of the pandemic to typically about five to seven cases is reason to celebrate, said City Manager Thomas Ambrosino.

“But that will never get us out of this red [category],” he said.

For Chelsea, the state’s cases-per-day risk designation “is not a good metric.”

“But I’m not complaining,” Ambrosino added, “because it’s complacency that worries me the most. I don’t see this red designation as a badge of dishonor. I see it as a way to keep people on their toes. Our numbers are substantially down from what they were and I just want everybody to stay diligent.”

Granby caught by surprise with ‘code red’ designation

Reminiscent of the “Sesame Street” song “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others,” the town of Granby stands out among the group of 10 cities and towns the Baker-Polito administration has coded “red” for having the highest 14-day positivity rates for COVID-19.

With a population of 6,300 and just 224 residents per square mile, this agricultural town in the Pioneer Valley bears virtually no resemblance to its red zone cohorts. U.S. census data puts Revere’s population at 53,073 with nearly 9,100 people per square mile. Even the next-smallest “red” community, the town of Hull, looks relatively big and urban next to Granby, with a population of 10,475 and 3,676 people per square mile.

So, what happened to land Granby in league with some of the Commonwealth’s most densely populated cities? First, the total number of positive coronavirus cases since July 31 was only seven, said Town Manager Chris Martin. But with its small population, that’s in the red zone.

“What we know is there was a graduation party held,” he said. “Out of that party, four of the seven cases were reported – three from the same household. That has caused us to become a red community.”

If Granby has little in common demographic-wise with the other red zone municipalities, it does share the same concerns and similar responses. The morning after receiving the designation, the town convened an emergency Board of Health meeting to determine next steps, which included a reverse-911 call to all residents explaining what the designation means and reminding everyone to wear masks and social distance. Martin said the town is also “shutting down all sporting events,” a move that affects private organizations running soccer leagues in town.

“We’re not going to allow people to get together in large groups,” Martin said, noting that he is urging neighbors to report such gatherings. Police will keep an eye out for and disperse large groups, he said, and businesses are reminded to require patrons to wear masks.

“We’re looking at instituting fines at some point,” he said.

In the meantime, Martin said he would be reaching out to Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, the Department of Public Health, and legislators to request state assistance in the form of staff and funds for more contact tracing and communications tailored for the town website, cable TV and local media.

“The problem is we’re a part-time government here,” he said. “To do everything that we need to do to ramp up against this, we need help from the state. We really do.”

Written by Lisa Capone