Six months into the pandemic the coronavirus is again taking hold of the Merrimack Valley, with Haverhill, Methuen and North Andover joining Lawrence in the "red zone," forcing local leaders to call off youth sports, institute mask mandates and take other measures to stop the spread.
"These are not things we want to do, but with rising rates, we have to do," said Haverhill Mayor James Fiorentini after his city became one of the state's 23 high-risk locales — up from 15 such communities the previous week.
The high-risk designation presents not only a public health risk, but also an economic worry because it prevents the progression to the next phase of reopening, while low-risk communities can move forward.
North Andover's dip into the red — and status as the highest-risk Massachusetts community — came courtesy of an outlier outbreak at Merrimack College, where 93 COVID-19 cases have been reported.
Town Manager Melissa Murphy-Rodrigues said during the timeframe of the Merrimack outbreak, 16 cases came from residents not affiliated with the school.
She said that means without the college numbers, the town would have an incident rate of 3.8%, putting it in the state's green, low-risk category.
"On Monday, the Board of Selectmen is considering sending a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker urging him to allow the town to move forward to Phase 3, Step 2 despite the red designation due to the obvious cluster at Merrimack," Murphy-Rodrigues said, noting that there is no current evidence of community spread from the college cases.
Merrimack College students were sent home for remote learning last week and, according to a letter from the administration, on-campus classes are expected to resume Wednesday.
"We are also advocating that college numbers be counted independently as their own cluster," Murphy-Rodrigues said said.
In Haverhill and Methuen, a forced shutdown of youth sports was ordered late last week. Citywide trick-or-treating was called off in Haverhill, too, while North Andover, Lawrence and Methuen officials are holding off on the decision.
In Lawrence, a densely populated city where "red" status has been the norm nearly throughout, a mask ordinance instituted by Mayor Daniel Rivera comes with a $300 fine for violators.
Additionally, public health officials have gone door-to-door to educate people and offer guidelines to those who travel to places like the Dominican Republic and hot-spot states. Also, all public events in Lawrence are canceled through the end of December.
"Government has done everything that they can do in a free and open society," Rivera said. "All that is left is for people to exercise personal responsibility.”
The Lawrence Police Department enforces the mask ordinance through the policing of noise complaints, according to Rivera's office. In an effort to deter gatherings, noise issues are paired with mask violations.
If more than 10 people who do not live together aren't wearing masks, the homeowner may receive a $300 mask violation ticket in addition to the $200 noise ordinance violation fine.
Haverhill saw its numbers spike after an outbreak at Lakeview House nursing home, where more than 40 residents and nearly 20 employees tested positive last week.
A mask order put in place by Fiorentini is not nearly as strict as the one in Lawrence, but the mayor has ordered businesses to post signs and other materials encouraging compliance.
Code enforcement in Methuen has also become a priority for Mayor Neil Perry, who encourages residents to download the "seeclickfix" app that helps track cases through an embedded reporting function.
Perry said he drives around the city at night and on weekends looking for people who aren't wearing masks or social distancing, or who are gathering in large groups.
"I stopped to chastise some guys playing basketball at Timony School not wearing masks," he said.
There were about 30 people using the court for a pick-up game, he estimated.
"Large gatherings are on the rise," he said. "I know people are getting tired of it, but they've got to buckle down."
Fiorentini led by example when a state drive-up testing site opened in Haverhill on Wednesday in the Locke Street parking lot next to 125 Winter St.
"It took 28 seconds to get tested, one-and-a-half days to get results," said Fiorentini, who had a negative result. "Can you spare 28 seconds to help keep our city safe?"
Staff writers Breanna Edelstein and Bill Kirk contributed to this story.