State House News Service
On a Sunday when many Bay Staters thought they’d be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, Gov. Charlie Baker was instead applauding Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for shutting down South Boston bars, and talking about emergency legislation to help businesses and workers ride out the coronavirus pandemic.
Baker, who appeared live on WCVB’s Sunday morning talk show “On the Record,” dismissed as rampant speculation the idea that he was preparing to issue a mandatory 14-day “shelter in place” order. He did, however, say that he will be filing legislation Monday dealing with unemployment insurance to address the impact the virus is having on businesses and workers.
The governor’s appearance on television came as the state has positively identified 138 cases of coronavirus in Massachusetts, including 10 cases that have required hospitalization. The lack of available testing, however, has lead many to speculate that the number of people infected is much greater.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who has stepped away from her day-to-day responsibilities to lead the state’s coronavirus response, said Saturday that 475 people had been tested by the state laboratory as of Friday, and that its capacity was expected to double by next week to 400 tests a day. Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, however, joined Baker on “On the Record” Sunday morning and said that since February 28 there have been 799 patients tested by the DPH laboratory.
Three private labs — Quest Diagnostics, LabCorp and Thermo Fisher — have also been given FDA approval in recent days to begin testing.
“I think you’re going to see tons more testing and with tons more testing, yeah, you’ll probably see a significant increase in the number of people who have been affected,” Baker said.
Though he wouldn’t put a time frame on it, he said the state’s objective is to quickly ramp up testing to the point that at least 1,000 people a day can be screened for the virus, through either public or private labs. He said the goal of the state is to spread out the rise of infections and avoid a spike that would overwhelm the health care system. Baker also suggested that drive-through testing may soon become available.
“I certainly think you will probably see soon that kind of thing going on in the Commonwealth,” Baker said of the drive-through centers.
Baker on Friday used his emergency powers to issue an executive order banning most gatherings of 250 people or more, but said there were still some things he could not do alone under the state of emergency, and would be seeking the Legislature’s assistance.
“One of the things we’re going to ask them for is help with respect to unemployment insurance and we’ll probably file legislation on that tomorrow,” Baker said, indicating that he’s already talked with lawmakers about his plans.
Asked about rumors that he would order a mandatory statewide quarantine on Monday, Baker said he had been called over the past few days by leaders in the business, health care, and political communities all asking about the same thing.
“I would just say, first of all, we have no plans to do that, although it does help me understand what some of the run on the supermarkets and the other dry goods and general stores would be about,” Baker said.
He urged people to get their news from “trusted sources,” including the state’s website or other trusted media. He also said he anticipated doing daily press briefings.
Baker was watching one of those news channels on Saturday when he saw reports from South Boston about large crowds gathering to enter bars along Broadway in South Boston to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The city had already canceled the traditional political roast and parade on Sunday, but City Hall also reached a voluntary agreement with bars to close on Sunday in light of the crowds to enable “social distancing.”
“I saw the news on what was going on in South Boston last night. I think the mayor made the right decision by shutting it down at 11 [p.m.] and I think he’s making the right decision by shutting it down today and I hope he shuts it down on Tuesday,” Baker said.
Baker continued to say that he does not believe ordering the closure of all schools in Massachusetts would have the desired slowdown on transmission, even as criticism of his reluctance to take such a step has intensified from some lawmakers and others. At least 19 states have close schools statewide.
Baker pointed to the decisions made by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio to keep their school systems open.
“If the facts change, then our decision process will change. I mean, the thing to remember here is you want to make your decisions based on the facts as they are,” Baker said. “And there are plenty of folks in the public health community who would argue that just closing schools, if you don’t actually do something about what everybody does once schools are closed, doesn’t necessarily help you with transmission.”
Both Baker and Bharel said they were not symptomatic themselves and had not been tested, but would get tested if they felt sick.
Baker also said he thought non-essential travel, including air travel at this time, should be avoided, but he did not rule out going to a eat at a restaurant if he felt he could properly keep a safe social distance.