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Baker plans to reopen Massachusetts in stages

Resurgence will remain a threat ‘for a very long time’

Kenneal Patterson
Baker plans to reopen Massachusetts in stages
A crowd of several hundred pro-Trump demonstrators, many unmasked, rallied at the State House calling for a lifting of restrictions. BANNER PHOTO

Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday that there’s been a downward trend in coronavirus hospitalizations. The administration’s Reopening Advisory Board is working on a plan to reopen the economy in stages, which will be released on May 18. Nevertheless, the pandemic is far from over.

“The threat of future transmission and illness is and will continue to be with us for a very long time,” said Baker during Monday’s press conference. “We should not forget that.”

Baker’s face covering mandate is in effect as of Wednesday, May 6. People over the age of 2 are required to wear protective masks or other coverings when social distancing isn’t possible. Those who don’t abide by the mandate face a $300 fine, and business owners can deny entry to anyone without a mask. Only certain people are exempt from the order due to medical conditions.

“The main purpose behind a face covering, if you are not able to physically distance yourself six feet or more from the people you are around, is to protect them from you as much as it is to protect you from them,” said Baker. He said that a large portion of residents are asymptomatic. These infected individuals do not show any symptoms of the virus, but they’re still contagious.

Massachusetts still ranks third in the number of COVID-19 cases nationwide. Other governors have started to lift stay-at-home mandates, but Baker said that Massachusetts is on a “different timetable.”

The Reopening Advisory Board, co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, will outline Massachusetts’ reopening phases. The report compiles ideas from 23 industry groups, which represent over 100,000 businesses and 1.4 million workers across the commonwealth. Baker said that feedback from the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, the NAACP and the Latino Chamber of Commerce was also included.

The report will include industry-specific protocols on reopening, said Baker, as well as guidelines on social distancing, personal protective equipment and cleaning. Concrete plans in the coming weeks will delineate where certain industries fit into the timeline, he added.

“The only sectors of the economy that can implement the appropriate health guidance will be opening in the first phase,” he said. “There won’t be anyone firing a starting gun on May 18 and saying everybody’s off to the races.”

As the state prepares to reopen, Baker advocated for continued testing. Sunday marked the highest number of tests processed on a single day since the pandemic began, he noted. Sunday’s 16,000 processed tests brought the state’s total to nearly 325,000.

“Ramping up testing capabilities continues to be one of our highest priorities,” said Baker.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have decreased over the past few days, and the number of infected patients in the ICU has also dropped by nearly 100. Different parts of Massachusetts are dealing with different stages of the pandemic, however.

COVID-19-related hospitalizations and ICU bed days are increasing in Worcester and the South Coast and flat in Boston. They’ve gone down in Western Massachusetts and on the Cape.

As of Monday, the state had had more than 69,000 COVID-19 cases and 4,000 deaths. In Boston alone, there have been over 10,000 cases and 442 deaths. Black individuals make up 40% of the cases and 34% of the deaths.

Mayor Martin Walsh said Monday that the daily increase in cases in Boston has recently been flat. “These are signs that may be on the verge of a downwards slope,” he said, but noted that it was too early to know for sure. Hospitals around Boston are still operating at 120% of normal ICU capacity, he added, but the number of hospitalized people is gradually going down.

The recently-constructed Boston Hope Medical Center still has space available, and Walsh said that the facility makes a big difference in ensuring hospitals don’t exceed capacity. It currently serves 161 patients: 98 are individuals seeking medical attention and 63 are residents seeking shelter.

Walsh emphasized that the city is not ready to reopen.

“We all have to stay the course right now,” he said, “So that we can keep saving lives and reopen safely here in Boston and Massachusetts.”

Walsh warned that a second, and “even worse” wave of the virus might hit if health protocols aren’t followed.

Testing is also being ramped up in Boston, with 28,000 people been tested so far. There are 19 testing sites across the city and last week testing was increased by 44%. Walsh said the data is being analyzed to find the most affected neighborhoods.

Boston Public Schools’ new phase of remote learning started on Monday.

“This updated learning plan gives more guidance for students and teachers around attendance, assignments, grading and scheduling,” said Walsh. No students will be held back this year, he added, and conversations around remote summer school are ongoing.

More than 65 sites across the city are providing food to students, and there are eight sites for adults. By the end of the week, eight additional sites will be added to the program in East Boston, Charlestown, Dorchester, Mattapan, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Hyde Park and Roxbury.

Walsh also acknowledged P-EBT, a food benefit program authorized by the federal coronavirus bill. The program is available to all BPS or charter school students, said Walsh, and households receive $5.70 per child per school day for the duration of school closure. Families of school-aged children will receive information on P-EBT later this month from the state Department of Transitional Assistance.

Walsh said that the pandemic has revealed large disparities throughout Boston. These disparities are in the health system and in housing across Boston, he said, noting cases of multiple family members living in an apartment. He also acknowledged disparities in economic development for small businesses. There needs to be more support for businesses owned by women and people of color, he said.

“Certainly, when we come out of the COVID [pandemic], we have lots of work to do,” he said.

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