Virus notes: Casinos closing; 1st Cape case, immigration changes

Attendees at naturalization ceremonies limited to under 25

PRESIDENT TRUMP says he just took a COVID-19 test, there are 2,200 cases in the US with 50 deaths, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has relaxed its testing standards. The US is extending travel restrictions to the United Kingdom and Ireland after banning flights into the country from the rest of Europe on Wednesday night. Those are the big headlines nationally.

Here in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker is urging people not to stockpile goods. “Filling your basement with two years of canned soup just means your neighbor will go without,” he said during a press conference on Saturday morning.

Casinos closing down

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission announced Saturday that it is closing all three of the state’s gambling facilities for at least two weeks in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The shutdown will last until at least March 29, when the group will reassess the situation.

The unanimous vote to close MGH Springfield, Encore Boston Harbor, and Plainridge Park Casino will go into effect between midnight and Sunday morning as casino floors and hotels close. Employees will be paid during the shutdown, and the facilities will remain open for cleaning crews and security workers.

“We sincerely regret the impact this will have on our employees, their families, and the community, but their health and safety is our number one concern,” said MGM chief operating officer and president Bill Hornbuckle in a statement.

First COVID-19 case on Cape Cod

A patient admitted to Cape Cod Hospital this week with respiratory problems tested positive for COVID-19, according to an internal hospital email.

Michael K. Lauf, president and CEO of Cape Cod Healthcare, said in the email  that the Department of Public Health confirmed the hospital’s first COVID-19 case. He said the patient will remain in isolation until he or she is stable, and can return home for the remainder of the 14-day quarantine period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

“All staff who came into contact with the patient are currently being monitored,” said Lauf.

Cape Cod Healthcare officials said during a video conference Friday that they intend to have one non-hospital testing center open this coming week, which can expedite testing. Until Friday, few people on Cape Cod had gotten approval to be tested by DPH.

Naturalization ceremony attendance being limited

For people about to become US Citizens, the naturalization ceremony is a day where they’re surrounded by attorneys and loved ones. But due to coronavirus spread concerns, the gatherings will become much smaller affairs.

According to sources at US Citizenship and Immigration Services who do not wish to be named, the agency is going to start limiting the number of people who can attend naturalization ceremonies to 25 people. The agency will be sending out notifications later this week on guidelines and will help people who would like to postpone their ceremony.

Citizenship and Immigration Services is in charge of processing citizenship application and green cards, and has not otherwise suspended interviews or appointments in the local field office. The agency’s site recommends anyone who feels ill to skip appointments and remain home.

Attorneys like Mahsa Khanbabai, head of the New England chapter for American Immigration Lawyers Association, are pleased that the agency is taking steps to reduce the spread of the virus by limiting the number of individuals at the ceremonies.

But for families that have waited so long for their moment, it can be hard. “Naturalization cases are a particularly sensitive area because these individuals have been patiently waiting years and sometimes decades to finally have their turn in line,” Khanbabai said.

Immigration court suspends most pre-trial hearings

The Executive Office of Immigration Review announced late Friday night that it is limiting hearings at a handful of immigration courts across the country, including in Boston.

Not long after judges, attorneys, and clients raised concerns in an article in CommonWealth about going to the high-traffic, often-packed JFK Federal building where the court is housed, the Office of Immigration Review ordered a postponement of status hearings that often require “larger groups of people from diverse geographic locations to remain in close contact with others.”

Individual hearings which involve fewer people will go on as planned.

“Effective immediately, the following immigration courts will remain open to hear individual hearings, but will postpone non-detained aliens’ master calendar hearings,” said the Office of Immigration Review in a statement.

The hearings in Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, Newark, Sacramento, and San Francisco will be postponed through April 10 and participants in the now-delayed hearing will receive a notice before their next scheduled court appearance.

The National Association of Immigration Judges issued a statement Friday evening saying “the limited measures announced tonight are wholly inadequate to address the public health risk.”

One of the attorneys who had concerns over the lack of response from the immigration review office said the hearing postponements are a “step in the right direction.”

“Master Calendar Hearings are crowded events where people sit shoulder to shoulder in the courtrooms and in the lobby; cancelling them is definitely the right thing to do,” said Boston attorney Eliana Nader in a statement. However, she believes that even without those hearings, immigration court is a busy and crowded place.

“These days, the judges are often triple booking Individual Calendar Hearings, leaving respondents, witnesses, and attorneys waiting around in the lobby for hours for their hearings to take place.  Even without non-detained Master Calendar hearings, the court will still be full of people all day long,” Nader said.

Boston charter schools shutting down

Charter schools in Boston plan to shut down from Monday through March 27 and then evaluate the COVID-19 situation at that time.

The schools notified parents on Friday that students would be given lesson plans for doing work at home and grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches will be provided by the school during that period.

By contrast, the Boston Public Schools plan to shut down Tuesday and remain closed through April 27. Plans for continuing some form of student education during that time and meal logistics are expected to be announced on Sunday.

On Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker declined to shut down K-12 schools across the state, instead choosing to leave that decision to individual schools with guidance from the state on a variety of potential COVID-19 situations.

In the communications the Boston charter schools sent to students and parents, officials noted Comcast is offering two months of free internet service under a plan called Internet Essentials.

The charter schools making the joint announcement were Academy of the Pacific Rim; Boston Collegiate; Boston Prep; Boston Renaissance; Bridge Boston; Brooke Charter Schools; City on a Hill; Codman Academy; Conservatory Lab (March 18-27); Excel Academy; Helen Y Davis; KIPP Boston Academy; Match; Neighborhood House; and Roxbury Prep.