Baker bars gatherings of more than 250

Despite pushback, allows K-12 schools to remain open

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Friday issued an order prohibiting most gatherings of 250 or more people, but his administration stopped short of requiring all of the state’s K-12 schools to shut down.

Toward the end of his State House press conference, which followed close on the heels of an earlier announcement regarding the postponement of the Boston Marathon until September 14, Baker teared up as he tried to describe what is at stake in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.

He said most people who become infected with the virus will face symptoms similar to the regular flu. He said the real danger is for the health system in general, which could be swamped if cases spike all at once, and for the elderly and those grappling with chronic diseases. He said all residents should do their part so the parents and grandparents who are likely most vulnerable to the disease can be spared.

“They’re not just seniors. They’re the people who in many cases are responsible for where we find ourselves,” Baker said. “If we can limit the number of people who actually get this infection and push the curve out, not only do we save our hospital capacity but in many cases we can help limit the number of people who are at risk.”

Baker said he often thinks of his 91-year-old dad who he visits just about every weekend. “I’m probably going to be talking to him on the phone for awhile. For a guy like that, it’s a much more difficult issue than it is for me.”

The ban on assemblies of more than 250 people applies to any gathering where people are confined indoors or outdoors at the same time. Large weddings, parties, and family reunions would be covered, but it would not apply to airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, libraries, shopping malls, polling locations, or grocery and retail stores where people tend to be in transit.

The order also does not apply to restaurants, but the governor said restaurants are encouraged to practice social distancing, which is typically keeping 6 feet of space between patrons. Offices, factories, and government offices where people are typically not in arm’s length of each other are also exempt.

Baker said his Department of Public Health advised against a similar blanket approach for the state’s K-12 schools. “Their overarching recommendation from a public health point of view is that just shutting schools down completely does not appear to be the appropriate thing to do at this time,” he said.

Schools are also directed not to hold events with 250 or more people or events where participants cannot stay 6 feet apart from each other. Sporting events are allowed, but only participants and their families can attend.

In general, however, school closings would be determined on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, the state’s guidance document outlines different responses for various scenarios, including when students or staff test positive, when family members of students or staff test positive, when students return from international travel, and when there is sustained transmission of the virus in the local community.

Merrie Najimy, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, called for closing all schools immediately for two weeks while preparing for a longer shutdown if necessary. “The piecemeal approach is ineffective,” she said in a statement. “We must take action on a statewide basis to protect students, educators, and the health of Massachusetts families.”

Sixteen state lawmakers also called on Baker to take uniform action addressing all schools. “The inconsistencies from one school district to the next have already led to confusion and unnecessary concern among school personnel, parents, and students,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Baker. “This is the time for true leadership and a decision to close the schools. The governors of Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, New Mexico, Michigan, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have already ordered the closure of all schools in their respective states. In the absence of leadership at the federal level, they made this brave decision even though their positive case rates are dwarfed by the 108 cases [123 as of Friday] in our Commonwealth. ”

Baker said putting off the Boston Marathon until September 14 was a good decision. “That’s a million people sometimes out there standing around cheering on runners for five-six-seven-eight hours, shoulder to shoulder, five-six-seven deep in some locations,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to have an event like that now because of the contagious nature of COVID-19.”

He said the postponement – not cancellation – of the event was important because of its sporting value, its economic benefit, and the symbolism and significance of the race for Boston and the state.

Testing for the virus has become a major issue. Until Thursday, only one state lab was authorized to run the tests. It currently can run 200 tests a day and by next week hopes to up its output to 400 a day.

On Thursday, two private labs won federal approval to begin testing patient swabs and the administration is hoping hospitals and others will soon win similar approvals.

Dr. Peter Slavin, CEO of Massachusetts General Hospital, said that newly relaxed federal requirements related to testing allowed both MGH and Brigham and Women’s Hospital to begin conducting their own tests on patients Friday. Brigham and Women’s can test up to 100 patients today and MGH can test 30 patients, and is hoping to ramp up that capacity further.

After Baker’s press conference, the  Department of Public Health  eased guidelines on who can be tested and how they can be tested. Previously, tests were reserved for those with fever and respiratory problems who had traveled to a country with a high level of the disease or had come in contact with someone who had COVID-19. The guidelines required the submission of  nasal and throat swabs and prior DPH approval before they could be submitted.

Under the new requirements, prior approval is no longer necessary and one swab instead of two is allowed. The new rules also give clinicians a lot more authority to order tests based on their own observations and dispensing with the requirements that the patient must have  visited a country with a high level of the disease or come in contact with someone with COVID-19.

Baker said the slow pace of federal approvals of additional testing labs is “enormously frustrating for all of us.” He added: “On this stuff I think it’s pretty clear I don’t think the feds are moving quickly enough.”

But Baker, a Republican, stopped short of criticizing the president or his administration for anything other than not moving fast enough.

He also said the test kits themselves have been slow to arrive from the federal government. The state currently has test kits for 5,000 individuals, and has placed another major order for more with the federal government.

“That’s another target that’s been moving at the federal level,” Baker said. “The federal standard with respect to what meets the qualifications to get the test has been changing and they’ve been loosening the guidelines up over the course of the last few days.”

The governor said he is hopeful that more test kits and more test laboratories will up the level of testing considerably.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Baker and Marylou Sudders, his secretary of health and human services, said they would not release numbers on how many people have been tested for the virus until Wednesday. Sudders also declined to forecast how many people in Massachusetts are likely to be infected, although she acknowledged she is beginning to develop some projections.

“We are engaged in scenario planning at this time for what may come next. We’re doing the scenario planning now,” Sudders said.