GOV. CHARLIE BAKER indicated on Wednesday that some of the state’s businesses could begin reopening after the COVID-19 surge concludes as long as they comply with rules his administration is developing with business leaders and other advisors.
Baker shut down much of the state’s economy in March by urging residents to stay home and ordering non-essential businesses to shutter their physical work settings. Baker subsequently extended the order until May 4, the same date that schools had been tentatively scheduled to reopen. The governor’s decision on Tuesday to shutter schools until the end of June suggested the order for non-essential businesses would be extended again beyond May 4.
But Baker said at a State House press conference that reopening businesses will not be handled the way the schools were.
“We think the issue going forward is less about the date and a lot less about essential versus non-essential [businesses], and more about what we would describe as the rules of the road for reopening,” he said.
The rules might have different levels – one level for all businesses and others going into greater detail about specific industry categories. Baker didn’t provide an example of the type of rules he would propose, but it’s likely some sort of physical distancing would be required.
“There will be guidance and in some cases probably pretty forceful guidance around what the rules should look like and within that people will have to figure out whether they can comply or not,” Baker said. “Maybe some people can do them and some people can’t.”
Baker stressed repeatedly that the talk of reopening remains premature. “We need to be on the other side of the [COVID-19] curve before we do any of this stuff,” he said.
The governor hasn’t spelled out exactly what will determine if the surge is over, but he has talked a lot about a steady downturn in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The number of new COVID-19 cases declined five days in a row before jumping from 1,556 on Tuesday to 1,745 on Wednesday. Hospitalizations continued a steady rise to 3,977. Deaths from COVID-19 hit the highest daily high at 221, bringing the total during the pandemic to 2,182.
“We think it’s too soon to draw a conclusion from that data,” the governor said.
On the plus side, hospitals seem to be handling the surge. Baker said 57 percent of hospital beds are unoccupied. “The health care system is fully functional,” he said.
Baker said Massachusetts has been hit harder by COVID-19 than many other states because it is densely populated in the eastern part of the state and a hub of national and international travel, which are traits it shares with other communities that have been hit hard, such as New Orleans and Seattle.
Asked about a group’s plan to protest the continuing business shutdown outside his home tomorrow, Baker said he understands the sacrifices people are making and hopes they understand why social distancing and good hygiene are so important.
“This is not like any other virus,” Baker said. “This is not like the flu. If you get the flu, you know it and everybody else knows it. But when it comes to this particular virus there are a number of people who get it and don’t know it.”
He said 98 residents at one nursing home were tested and 51 percent came back positive even though they had no symptoms. Baker repeated his view that the number of people who get infected and never know it could be very large. He said that’s why good hygiene and social distancing are so important.
“This isn’t being done to punish anybody,” Baker said. “It’s being done to keep people safe.”