Throughout the week, Governor Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh provided updates to the public regarding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. At press time, Boston had 1838 cases of the virus, and the state has 1159. Fifteen people have died statewide, two of which were Boston residents. Mayor Walsh said that 21 people have made full recoveries.
After several states have issued what they call “shelter in place” or “stay at home” orders, Governor Baker directed the Department of Public Health to issue a stay at home advisory that began Tuesday, March 24th at noon and will last until Tuesday, April 7th at noon. Residents are advised to stay at home and avoid unnecessary travel and other unnecessary activities during the advisory. He also said that those over the age of 70 or who have underlying health conditions should especially limit social interactions.
The order also limits gatherings to 10 people during the state of emergency, a change from the previous 25 that were allowed.
“This includes community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based events, and any similar event or activity that brings together more than 10 persons in any confined indoor or outdoor space,” according to a release from the state. Gatherings of 10 or more people in an outdoor space such as a park or athletic field are not prohibited by the order.
“The Baker-Polito Administration does not believe Massachusetts residents can be confined to their homes and does not support home confinement for public health reasons,” the release states, though some people have written to the governor asking him to put a stricter order in place.
Governor Baker also issued an emergency order “requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide ‘COVID-19 Essential Services’ to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers and the public as of Tuesday, March 24th at noon until Tuesday, April 7th at noon,” the release states. A list of designated businesses that are allowed to remain open can be found at mass.gov.
Businesses that are not on this list are encouraged to continue their work remotely, the governor said. Restaurants are permitted to continue offering food for takeout and delivery as long as social distancing protocols are followed.
“People will not lose access to food or medicine,” Baker assured residents. Additionally, he said a goal for the state is to be testing people for the virus “at a significantly higher level.” On Tuesday afternoon, Baker announced that the state is continuing to ramp up testing capabilities, including adding 10 additional labs in addition to the state lab and other private labs that have been processing COVID-19 tests
BAKER ANNOUNCES EXTENSION OF SCHOOL CLOSURES STATEWIDE
Governor Baker on Wednesday issued an emergency order that extends the closures of all public and private schools as well as all non-emergency childcare programs until May 4. He previously ordered schools closed until April 6. The order does not apply to residential special education schools, and will allow administrators and educators extra time to plan and prepare for students to complete course requirements remotely.
Baker also announced that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and WGBH are partnering to offer educational resources that will be posted on the department’s website and viewed on WGBH and WGBY channels from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
HOUSING STABILITY FOR VULNERABLE POPULATIONS
Baker announced steps that will help protect vulnerable families as well as preserve the health of low-income renters and owners and prevent homelessness. The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) will temporarily suspend terminations of federal and state rental vouchers under their purview and $5 million will be transferred to the DHCD from MassHousing for a COVID-19 Rental Assistance for Families in Transition fund to assist families who are dealing with rent insecurity, as well as other steps, which can be found on mass.gov.
PHARMACIES AND GROCERY STORES
Baker also announced that grocery stores will now be required to provide at least one hour of shopping per day for those over the age of 60, provide santization options like hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes for customers to use, close self-serve food stations, enforce social distancing and create a “Social Distancing Line” that begins six feet away from all checkout counters, and instruct ill employees to stay home, as well as provide alternative assignments to employees who fall in the high-risk category that would limit their exposure to the public.
MAYOR WALSH UPDATES
Mayor Walsh spoke to Boston residents on Monday and Wednesday as well, announcing that one Boston Police officer and one EMT have tested positive.
The pause on nonessential construction began on Monday, Walsh said, as did daycare closures statewide with the exception of some that remain open for the children of healthcare professionals and first responders.
Walsh once again thanked the healthcare workers for being on the frontlines and helping those who are sick, and reiterated that practicing physical and social distancing is of the upmost importance to stop the spread of the virus and not overwhelm hospitals.
“There is no reason to panic buy or hoard items,” he also told residents, adding that Boston water is safe to drink and people should not be hoarding plastic bottles of water from the store.
As the governor said, restaurants can continue to offer takeout and delivery, and the City is offering a guidebook on how to set it up for those who do not currently offer it. A directory for residents of which restaurants are open and offering takeout and delivery will also be available, the Mayor said. Walsh reminded those waiting for takeout to practice social distancing and to not gather in large groups.
Walsh announced that the Boston Resiliency fund has surpassed the initial $20 million in a little over a week, and is still accepting donations. He said that the money has already been used to buy thousands of Chromebooks for BPS students, and $5 million in grants will also be released for organizations such as the Greater Boston Food Bank, Meals on Wheels, Fresh Truck, Community Servings, Project Bread, Boston’s Healthcare for the Homeless, Pine Street Inn, and others.
Walsh also announced that he has lifted the ban on plastic bags, and essential businesses that remain open will be allowed to distribute goods and food in plastic bags without charging people the typical five cents.
“Our businesses need flexibility right now to serve their customers,” Walsh said.
Walsh said that the city will continue to be in touch with seniors, the homeless population, students who need free lunch, and other vulnerable residents. He also said that there is now a team of experts reviewing emergency management plans for the city.
When asked about plans for helping people with their rents and mortgages, Walsh said that a lot of landlords and tenants are currently struggling, and getting them help is something that will require action.
“This is uncharted territory,” Walsh said, adding that he is “grateful” for the support of this team.
Boston Public Schools remain closed, and Walsh said that around 15,000 Chromebooks have been distributed to students across the city so they can continue their learning from home. Additionally, free meals for students are being distributed at 70 locations across the city.
Walsh also said that homeless shelters remain open, and the city is erecting facilities for screening, testing, and isolating patients, including the first tent that opened on Saturday afternoon with room for 18 individuals.
“To date, no one has the coronavirus in the homeless population,” Walsh said. The city is also hiring candidates for homeless councilors, public safety officers, and more.
For seniors, Walsh said that the Age Strong Commission “is here for you,” and is conducting phone calls in multiple languages to keep seniors up to date.
Walsh encouraged families experiencing financial hardship to reach out to their banks, as many are putting products and information out there about reworking mortgages and working out payment plans for credit cards.
He is also looking for donations of gloves and masks from nail salons, construction workers, and other businesses who use that equipment, as hospitals are in dire need of these supplies.
“These are extraordinarily difficult times,” Walsh said. “We’re going to see numbers increase because of testing made available.”
Residents who are feeling alone, scared, or anxious are urged to call 311 to be connected with an anonymous counselor. “We are here for you, Walsh said. “We are going to get through this together, one day at a time.”
Walsh said that there is no “safe date” where everything will return to normal, as no one can predict what will happen. He said that he hopes that cancelling the St. Patrick’s Day parade as well as postponing the marathon will make an impact and help prevent the spread of the virus, and reiterated the importance of staying inside and away from others so life can return to normal as soon as possible.
OTHER UPDATES: SUPPLY DELIVERIES AND PROPOSED LEGISLATION
Baker advised people who are showing flu-like symptoms to first contact their healthcare provider before going anywhere. “We need to keep people who don’t need to be in our hospitals and medical facilities out,” he said. The state has expanded telehealth services to make it easier for people to call and video chat with healthcare providers, as well as made it easier for nurses who are licensed in other states to work in Massachusetts.
As of Tuesday morning, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has made 89 deliveries of personal protection supplies, including over 750,000 masks, face shields, masks, and pairs of gloves from the strategic national stockpile. He also said that the dental community has donated masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer as well, and similar outreach to other communities like the construction community have gone out too.
Baker said that the only things people should be going out for are groceries, medications, and for some fresh air, but physical distancing should be maintained.
The state has also announced its own text alert system. Baker said that while the state is not looking to inundate people with even more information, they felt it was important that people are getting information from trusted sources, and only one or two notifications would be sent out per day.
The service would provide latest news and updates, public health tips, information on social and physical distancing, personal hygiene, and more. To sign up for the service, text COVIDMA to 888-777.
“It’s a great way to stay in touch with the Commonwealth,” Baker said.
When asked about relief for rent and mortgage payments, Baker said that it is hard for the state to know what to do without clarity from the federal government. He said that it is not possible to foreclose or evict without going to court, and courts are currently closed. He said they are talking about what the state could do on this matter, but he said in MA, under existing state law, it takes 90 days to cure on mortgages and 60 days on rent, and this law will be enforced.
The Baker administration also announced new legislation that would cut down on some of the “bureaucratic processes for local governments,” Baker said.
Lt. Governor Karyn Polito said that the package includes things like giving local governments more flexibility on collecting taxes from taxpayers, working with project proponents on local projects and permitting processes, and giving local businesses who are offering takeout and delivery services permission to include beer or wine in a sealed container with meals. For more information on the legislation, visit mass.gov.
“We know that we will all do better when we work together,” Polito said.